NAPOLEON WAS TAKING THE WATERS AT Vichy when news of the Seven Days reached him in mid-July. Hard on its heels came John Slidell, with an offer of one hundred thousand bales of cotton if France would denounce the Federal blockade. Unable to act alone in the matter, however eager he might be to feed his country’s looms, the Emperor—called “Napoleon the Little” to distinguish him from his illustrious uncle—promptly telegraphed his Foreign Minister: “Demandez au gouvernement anglais s’il ne croit pas le moment venu de reconnaître le Sud.”
Across the channel the mills were hungry, too, and though Mason was somewhat handicapped by the impracticality of offering an Englishman anything so indelicate as a bribe, the time was propitious from the Confederate point of view. “There is an all but unanimous belief that you cannot subject the South to the Union,” an influential partisan of Northern interests was informing a friend across the ocean. “I feel quite convinced that unless cotton comes in considerable quantities before the end of the year, the governments of Europe will be knocking at your door.” Moreover, even as he wrote, a pro-Confederate member was introducing a motion before Parliament for British-French mediation in the American Civil War, which in effect amounted to recognition of the infant nation as a reward for throwing the blue invader off its doorstep. Fortunately, however—from the Federal point of view—the long vacation was under way, and before the issue could be forced the Cabinet was scattered from Scotland to Germany, in pursuit of grouse and relaxation. Action was deferred.
Distracting as these transatlantic dangers were, or might have been, the truth was Lincoln had more than enough material for full-time worry here at home. Hedged in by cares, blamed alike by critics right and left of the hostile center, he later said of the period under question: “I was as nearly inconsolable as I could be and live.” In contrast to the adulation heaped on Davis, whose critics had been muzzled by the apparent vindication of his policies and whose countrymen now hailed him as a second Hezekiah, the northern leader heard himself likened unto Sennacherib, the author and director of a ponderous fiasco. Henry Ward Beecher was saying of him from a pulpit in Brooklyn, “Not a spark of genius has he; not an element for leadership. Not one particle of heroic enthusiasm.” Wendell Phillips thought him something worse, and said so from a Boston lecture platform: “He may be honest—nobody cares whether the tortoise is honest or not. He has neither insight, nor prevision, nor decision.… As long as you keep the present turtle at the head of the government, you make a pit with one hand and fill it with the other.”
The politicians were in full bay, particularly those of his own party who had been urging, without success, his support of antislavery legislation which he feared would lose him the border states, held to the Union so far by his promise that no such laws would be passed. It also seemed to these Republicans that entirely too many Democrats were seated in high places, specifically in the cabinet and the army; and now their anger was increased by apprehension. About to open their campaigns for reëlection in November, they had counted on battlefield victories to increase their prospects for victory at the polls. Instead, the main eastern army, under the Democrat McClellan—“McNapoleon,” they called him—had held back, as if on purpose, and then retreated to the James, complaining within hearing of the voters that the Administration was to blame. Privately, many of the Jacobins agreed with the charge, though for different reasons, the main one being that Lincoln, irresolute by nature, had surrounded himself with weak-spined members of the opposition party. Fessenden of Maine put it plainest: “The simple truth is, there was never such a shambling half-and-half set of incapables collected in one government since the world began.”
The people themselves were disconsolate. “Give me a victory and I will give you a poem,” James Russell Lowell wrote his publisher; “but I am now clear down in the bottom of the well, where I see the Truth too near to make verses of.” Apparently the people shared his gloom. Their present reaction was nothing like the short-lived panic they had staged five weeks ago, when Stonewall Jackson broke through to the line of the Potomac. Nor was it characterized by aroused determination, as in the period following Bull Run the year before. It was in fact strangely apathetic and difficult to measure, even for a man who had spent a lifetime with one hand on the public pulse, matching the tempo of his actions to its beat. Lincoln watched and wondered. One indication was the stock market, which broke badly under the impact of the news from the Peninsula; another was the premium on the gold in the Union dollar, which had stood at three and one-half percent a month ago, but since then had risen to seventeen. He watched and wondered, unable to catch the beat.
In response to McClellan’s call for reinforcements on the day of Malvern Hill—“I need 50,000 more men, and with them I will retrieve our fortunes”—Lincoln told him: “Maintain your ground if you can, but save the army at all events, even if you fall back to Fort Monroe. We still have strength enough in the country, and will bring it out.” Well, McClellan had “saved the army,” and the “strength enough” was there; but Lincoln was uncertain as to how to “bring it out.” The present apathy might be a lull before the storm that would be brought on by another call for troops. As he phrased it, “I would publicly appeal to the country for this new force were it not that I fear a general panic and stampede would follow, so hard is it to have a thing understood as it really is.”
As usual, he found a way. To call for troops was one thing; to receive them was another. Seward was sent to New York to confer with men of political and financial power, explain the situation, and arrange for the northern governors to “urge” the President to issue a call for volunteers to follow up “the recent successes of the Federal arms.” Lest there be any doubt as to whether the Administration intended to fight this war through to a finish, Seward took with him a letter: “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsake me.… Yours, very truly, A. Lincoln.”
Seventeen governors, plus the president of the Military Board of Kentucky, responded promptly by affixing their signatures to a communication written by Seward, addressed to the Chief Executive, and saying in part: “We respectfully request, if it meets with your entire approval, that you at once call upon the several States for such number of men as may be required … to garrison and hold all of the numerous cities and military positions that have been captured by our armies, and to speedily crush the rebellion that still exists in several of the Southern States, thus practically restoring to the civilized world our great and good Government.” Being thus urged, Lincoln took his cue and in early July—“fully concurring in the wisdom of the views expressed to me in so patriotic a manner”—issued a call for 300,000 volunteers. In fact, so entirely did the request meet with his approval, he followed this first call with another, one month later, for 300,000 more.
Lowell, “clear down in the bottom of the well,” had said he could produce no poem unless he received a victory as payment in advance; but lesser talents apparently required a lesser fee. J. S. Gibbons found in this second call a subject fit for his muse, and Stephen Foster set the result to music:
If you look up all our valleys where the growing harvests shine
You may see our sturdy farmer boys fast forming into line,
And children from their mothers’ knees are pulling at the weeds
And learning how to reap and sow against their country’s needs,
And a farewell group stands weeping at every cottage door:
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!
Reinforcements would be welcome all along the line; there was scarcely a mile of it that did not have some general calling plaintively or angrily for more soldiers. But more soldiers, even half a million of them, would not solve the basic problem, which was one of high command. For four months now, ever since the abrupt relief of McClellan back in March, the overall conduct of the war had been directed by Lincoln and Stanton—a sort of two-headed, four-thumbed amateur—with results just short of disastrous in the theater which had received their main attention. Stonewall Jackson, for example, had frightened Stanton and decoyed Lincoln into breaking up the combinations McClellan had designed for taking Richmond: so that Davis and Lee, professionals both, had been able to turn the tables on the Army of the Potomac, effecting countercombinations that drove it headlong to the James. Part of the fault could be assigned to flaws that developed in subordinate commanders—on the one hand, Frémont’s ineptness; on the other, McClellan’s lack of aggressive instincts—but most of it lay with the overall direction, which had permitted the enemy to bring pressure on those flaws.
Lincoln could see this now in retrospect, much of it at any rate, and in fact he had begun to suspect it soon after the failure of his chessboard combinations in the Valley. In his distress, before the blow fell on the Peninsula, his mind turned back to Winfield Scott, the one general who had shown thus far that he really knew what war was all about. The old man was in retirement up the Hudson at West Point, too infirm for travel. So on June 23—a Monday; the first of the Seven Days was two days off—Lincoln boarded a special train and rode north to see him. What they talked about was a secret, and it remained so. But when McClellan wired the War Department on June 27, while Porter was under attack on Turkey Hill: “I will beg that you put some one general in command of the Shenandoah and of all troops in front of Washington for the sake of the country. Secure unity of action and bring the best men forward,” Lincoln, who had returned two days before, had already done what he suggested, even before his visit up the Hudson. That is, he had united the troops under one commander. Whether he had brought the best man forward remained to be seen.
John Pope was the man: Halleck had praised him so highly he had lost him. Indeed, for months now the news from that direction had seemed to indicate that the formula for victory, so elusive here on the seaboard, had been discovered by the generals in the West—in which case, as Lincoln and Stanton saw it, the thing to do was bring one of them East and give him a chance to apply it. Grant’s record having been tarnished by Shiloh and the subsequent rumors of negligence and whiskey, Pope was the more or less obvious choice, not only because of Island Ten and Halleck’s praise of his aggressiveness during the campaign against Corinth, but also because Lincoln, as a prairie lawyer pleading cases in Pope’s father’s district court, had known him back in Illinois. There were objections. Montgomery Blair, for instance, warned that old Judge Pope “was a flatterer, a deceiver, a liar and a trickster; all the Popes are so.” But the President could not see that these were necessarily drawback characteristics in a military man. While admitting the general’s “infirmity” when it came to walking the chalk-line of truth, he protested that “a liar might be brave and have skill as an officer.” Also, perhaps as a result of a belief in the Westerner’s ability to combine effectively the several family traits Blair had warned of, he credited him with “great cunning,” a quality Lincoln had learned to prize highly as a result of his brush with Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. So Pope was sent for.
Arriving while Lincoln was up the country seeing Scott, he made at once an excellent impression on Stanton and the members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, who saw in him the antithesis of McClellan. For one thing, there was nothing of caution about him; he was a talker, and his favorite words were “I” and “forward.” (If he had been placed in charge of the West in the early spring, he said, nothing could have stopped his march on New Orleans; by now he would have split the South in two and gone to work on the crippled halves.) For another, he was sound on the slavery question, assuring the committee that he and it saw eye to eye on the matter. Wade and the others were delighted, not only with his opinions, civil as well as military, but also with his appearance, which they found as reassuring as his beliefs. He had shaved his cheeks and his upper lip, retaining a spade-shaped chin beard that bobbed and wagged decisively as he spoke, lending weight and point to his utterances and increasing the overall impression of forcefulness and vigor. Lincoln, when he returned from the visit with Scott, was pleased to see the confidence Pope had managed to invite within so brief a span, and gave him at once his orders and his assignment to the command of an army expressly created for his use.
The Army of Virginia, it was called. Its strength was 56,000 men and its mission was to move in general down the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so as to close in on the Confederate capital from the west and north, while McClellan’s Army of the Potomac applied pressure from the east; thus Richmond would be crushed in a giant nutcracker, with Pope as the upper jaw. His army was created by consolidating the commands of McDowell, Banks, and Frémont. All three of these generals outranked him—an unusual arrangement, to say the least—but only one of them took official umbrage. This was Frémont: which solved another problem. His protest resignation was accepted, and Lincoln replaced him with Franz Sigel, whose appointment, though it involved a thousand-mile transfer, was considered especially felicitous since so many of the troops involved were of German extraction.
Pope’s instructions, issued June 26 as part of the order creating his army, required him to operate so as to protect Washington from “danger or insult” and to “render the most effective aid to relieve General McClellan and capture Richmond.” It was a large order, but Pope only laid down one condition: McClellan must be given peremptory orders to attack the minute he heard that Pope was engaged. This was necessary, Pope said, because of the known timidity and irresolution of his partner in the squeeze play.
For the present, however—as he learned all too soon—the stipulation was unnecessary. On the day the Army of Virginia came officially into being, McClellan no longer had any choice in the matter; the Seven Days had opened, and the Army of the Potomac found itself engaged in a tremendous struggle for survival, trying first to fend off Lee’s assault down the north bank of the Chickahominy and then to reach the gunboat sanctuary of the James. When news of the attack reached Washington, Pope showed that there were elements of caution in his make-up after all. He advised Lincoln not to let McClellan fall back southward, since this would unhinge the jaws of the nutcracker, but to order him to retire in the direction of the York. That way, Pope said, he could eventually go to his assistance—and vice versa, in case the Army of Virginia ran into similar trouble moving south. But there was nothing Lincoln could do about it, even if he had wanted to; the wires were cut and the Army of the Potomac was already in motion for the James. Pope began to see the handwriting on the wall. It warned him plainly that there was an excellent chance that he would be entirely on his own as he moved down the road that led to Richmond.
Discouraging as this prospect was to the newly arrived commander, a look into the backgrounds of the three groups he was expected to weld into an effective striking force proved equally discouraging, if not more so. Two of the three (Banks’ and Sigel’s) had traditions of defeat, and the third (McDowell’s) had slogged all over northern Virginia, seemingly without profit to anyone, least of all to itself. Unquestionably, even in their own eyes—“Milroy’s weary boys” were a case in point—this was the second team, restricted to an occasional scrimmage which served primarily to emphasize its lack of style, while the first team got the cheers and glory on the Peninsula. For all his bluster, Pope saw one thing clearly. However second-rate his material might be in some respects, he had here the makings of a first-class disaster, unless he could somehow restore or establish confidence in the breasts of his downhearted charges. Accordingly, as a first step before he took the field, he issued an address “To the Officers and Soldiers of the Army of Virginia,” giving them, along with much else in the way of advice, a chance to see what manner of man was about to lead them against the rebel force that had just finished mauling the first team and flinging it back from the goal-post gates of Richmond.
“Let us understand each other,” he told them. “I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense.… I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily.” He supposed they longed for distinction in the jar and shock of battle, and he was prepared to show them how to win it. In any event, he said, “I desire you to dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of ‘taking strong positions and holding them,’ of ‘lines of retreat,’ and of ‘bases of supplies.’ Let us discard such ideas. The strongest position a soldier should desire to occupy is one from which he can most easily advance against the enemy. Let us study the probable lines of retreat of our opponents, and leave our own to take care of themselves. Let us look before us, and not behind. Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”
The words had a Stantonian ring, which Pope explained long afterwards by identifying the Secretary himself as their author. At any rate, whoever wrote them, the effect was something other than the one that had been intended: particularly among the men the undersigned general addressed. They found the comparison odious, and they resented the boasting tone in which it was made. “Five Cent Pope,” they dubbed their new commander, while old-time regulars recalled a parody that had made the army rounds some years ago, when he issued oversanguine reports of success in boring for artesian water on the bone-dry plains of Texas:
Pope told a flattering tale
Which proved to be bravado
About the streams which spout like ale
On the Llano Estacado.
McClellan’s supporters of course resented him, too: Fitz-John Porter for example, who declared that Pope had “written himself down [as] what the military world has long known, an ass.… If the theory he proclaims is practiced you may look for disaster.”
Beyond the lines, where the address enjoyed wide circulation, the Confederate reaction combined contempt and amusement. Reports that this new spread-eagle opponent was heading his dispatches “Headquarters in the Saddle” prompted a revival of the old army jibe that he had his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be.
By the time Pope’s flamboyant address was issued in mid-July, Lincoln had been down to the Peninsula and back. Between the two boat-rides, going and coming, he not only made a personal inspection of the Army of the Potomac and questioned its chief and subordinate generals, but he also made up his mind about a matter he had been pondering ever since his visit to Winfield Scott three weeks ago—a command decision, involving this and all the other armies of the Union.
Within two days of his July 1 plea for 50,000 men, with which to “retrieve our fortunes” after the blood-letting of the Seven Days, McClellan doubled the ante; 100,000 would now be needed, he declared. Lincoln replied on the 4th that any such figure “within a month, or even six weeks, is impossible.… Under these circumstances the defensive for the present must be your only care. Save the army—first, where you are, if you can; secondly, by removal, if you must.” He added, perhaps ironically: “p.s. If at any time you feel able to take the offensive, you are not restrained from doing so.” Once more he was losing patience fast. Sending troops to McClellan, he said, was like trying to shovel fleas across a barnlot; so few seemed to get there. Also, there were alarming rumors as to the condition of the men the general already had. Lincoln decided to see for himself. Boarding a steamer on the night of July 7, he reached Harrison’s Landing late the following afternoon and rode out at once with the army commander for a sundown inspection of the camps.
Apparently to his surprise he found the men in good condition and high spirits—though the latter could be accounted for, at least in part, as a reaction to seeing the President on horseback. For one thing, an observer wrote home, there was the imminent danger that his long legs “would become entangled with those of the horse … and both come down together.” Occupied as he was in the attempt to control his mount, which seemed equally nervous, he had trouble tipping his tall hat in response to cheers that were redoubled when the difficulty was seen. “That arm with which he drew the rein, in its angles and position resembled the hind leg of a grasshopper—the hand before, the elbow away back over the horse’s tail.… But the boys liked him,” the soldier-observer added. “In fact his popularity with the army is and has been universal. Most of our rulers and leaders fall into odium, but all have faith in Lincoln. ‘When he finds out,’ they say, ‘it will be stopped.’ … God bless the man and give answer to the prayers for guidance I am sure he offers.”
If guidance was what he was seeking he could find it right there alongside him, astride Dan Webster. Less than three weeks ago McClellan had requested permission to present his views on the state of military affairs throughout the country; Lincoln had replied that he would be glad to have them—preferably in a letter, he said—if their presentation would not divert too much of the general’s time and attention from his immediate duties. So tonight, when they returned to headquarters, McClellan handed the President a letter “covering the whole ground of our national trouble” and setting forth the conditions under which he believed the struggle could be won.
The rebellion, he said, had now “assumed the character of a war,” and “as such … it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization. It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any State in any event. It should not be at all a war upon population, but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” This last was a point he emphasized, since “a declaration of radical views” in this direction would “rapidly disintegrate our present armies.” More strictly within the military province, he advised concentration as the guiding rule. “The national force should not be dispersed in expeditions, posts of occupation, and numerous armies, but should be mainly collected into masses, and brought to bear upon the armies of the Confederate States. Those armies thoroughly defeated, the political structure which they support would soon cease to exist,” and the southern people, unembittered by depredations, would turn against the willful men who had misled them out of the Union and sue at once for peace and reëntry. So he saw it. However, no matter what “system of policy” was adopted, he strongly urged the appointment of a general-in-chief, “one who possesses your confidence, understands your views, and who is competent to execute your orders.” He did not ask that post for himself, he said; but he made it clear that he would not decline the reappointment, since he was “willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me,” including this one. In closing he added a final explanation and disclaimer: “I may be on the brink of eternity, and as I hope forgiveness from my Maker I have written this letter with sincerity toward you and from love for my country.”
Lincoln took it and read it through, with McClellan standing by. “All right,” he said, and put it in his pocket. That was all. Apparently he had not come down here in search of guidance.
What he had come for, it developed, was a look at the present condition of the army and some specific answers to a specific question which he put the following day to the five corps commanders: “If it were desired to get the army away from here, could it be safely effected?” Keyes and Franklin replied that it could and should be done. The other three thought otherwise. “It would be ruinous to the country,” Heintzelman said; “We give up the cause if we do it,” Sumner said; “Move the army and ruin the country,” Porter said. Once the questioning was over, Lincoln and the generals took a glass of wine together and the President got ready to go back to Washington.
McClellan was upset: particularly by the evidence that the Administration might order him to evacuate the Peninsula. After seeing Lincoln off next morning, he wrote his wife that he feared the President had some “paltry trick” up his sleeve; his manner, he said, “seemed that of a man about to do something of which he was ashamed.” For a week the general brooded and delivered himself of judgments. Lincoln was “an old stick, and of pretty poor timber at that,” while Stanton was “the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard, or read of.” He believed he saw which way the wind was blowing: “Their game seems to be to withhold reinforcements, and then to relieve me for not advancing, well knowing that I have not the means to do so.” Accordingly, in mid-July he wrote to his friend William H. Aspinwall, asking the New York transportation tycoon to be on the lookout for a job for him.
Lincoln meanwhile had made up his mind to act on the command decision which he had been considering for weeks. All through the previous autumn, old General Scott had held out in Washington for as long as he could, putting up with McClellan’s snubs and digs for the sake of Halleck, who was on his way from California. It was Scott’s hope that Old Brains would be there to take his place when he retired as general-in-chief. But the way was long and the digs were sharp; the old man gave up before Halleck got there, and McClellan got the job. Since then, the contrast in accomplishments East and West seemed to reinforce Scott’s original opinion, which he repeated when the President came to West Point on the eve of the Seven Days, Lincoln saw merit in the recommendation, but he thought he would have a talk with Halleck before he acted on it. Back in Washington in time for the outbreak of the Seven Days, he wired the western commander: “Please tell me, could you make me a flying visit for a consultation without endangering the service in your department?”
Halleck did not want to come, and said so. Even if he did, he added, “I could advise but one thing: to place all the [eastern] forces … under one head, and hold that head responsible.”
Refusal was always provocative for Lincoln; in the course of the war, several men were to learn that the surest way to get something from him was to pretend they did not want it. He almost made up his mind, then and there. Down on the Peninsula, however, the matter was more or less cinched by McClellan himself. His Harrison’s Landing letter, an exegesis of the conservative position, was the strongest possible proof that its author was not the kind of man to fight the kind of war Lincoln was rapidly coming to believe the country was going to have to fight if it was going to win. Returning to Washington on the night of July 10, he had Stanton send a wire to Corinth next morning, which left the recipient no choice in the matter: “Ordered, that Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck be assigned to command the whole land forces of the United States as General-in-Chief, and that he repair to this capital as soon as he can with safety to the positions and operations within the department under his charge.”
There were delays; Halleck did not arrive for nearly two weeks, being occupied with the incidentals of transferring his command. The delay was hard on Lincoln; “I am very anxious—almost impatient—to have you here,” he wired. Down on the Peninsula, McClellan was spared for nine days the shock of hearing that his old post had gone to a rival. Then he read of it in a newspaper. “In all these things,” he wrote his wife, “the President and those around him have acted so as to make the matter as offensive as possible. He has not shown the slightest gentlemanly or friendly feeling, and I cannot regard him as in any respect my friend. I am confident that he would relieve me tomorrow if he dared to do so. His cowardice alone prevents it. I can never regard him with other feelings than those of contempt.”
This was going to be a harder war from here on out, and Lincoln knew it. He knew it because he was going to make it so. In fact, he was going to make it just as hard as he had to, and he said as much quite frankly to anyone who asked him. Most particularly, despite conflicting advice from McClellan and men like him, it was going to be harder on civilians. Of the four actions which the general had said “should [not] be contemplated for a moment”—1) confiscation of property, 2) political execution of persons, 3) territorial organization of states, and 4) forcible abolition of slavery—the first and second had already been carried out with governmental sanction, the third was in the legislative works, and the fourth was under urgent consideration.
The second of these was the most obviously harsh, and for that reason should be the most obviously effective in securing obedience to occupation rule. So Benjamin Butler reasoned, at any rate, when he reached New Orleans and found that the national ensign, prematurely raised over the Mint, had been ripped from its staff by the mob. “They have insulted our flag—torn it down with indignity,” he notified the War Department. “This outrage will be punished in such manner as in my judgment will caution both the perpetrators and abettors of the act, so that they shall fear the stripes if they do not reverence the stars in our banner.” As good as his word, Butler found a man still wearing a tatter of the outraged bunting in his buttonhole, brought him before a drumhead court, and carried out the resultant sentence by hanging him in public from a window of the building where the crime had been committed.
It worked about as well as he had expected. The sight of one man dangling by his neck from the eaves of the Mint sobered the others considerably. Fear, not reverence, was what Butler had wanted, and he got it—at least from the men. The women were another matter. In them he saw no signs of fear, and certainly none of reverence. In fact, they missed no chance to show their contempt for the blue-clad invaders. Passing them on the street, they drew their skirts aside to escape contamination, or else they walked straight ahead, taking their half of the sidewalk out of the middle, and forced oncoming Yankees to step off into the mud. The climax came when one of them, taking careful aim from an upstairs window, emptied a slopjar onto the head of Farragut himself. Butler retaliated with a general order, directing “that hereafter when any female shall, by word, gesture or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
At home and abroad, the reaction was uproarious. Beauregard made Butler’s order the subject of one of his own: “Men of the South! shall our mothers, our wives, our daughters and our sisters be thus outraged by the ruffianly soldiers of the North, to whom is given the right to treat, at their pleasure, the ladies of the South as common harlots? Arouse, friends, and drive back from our soil those infamous invaders of our homes and disturbers of our family ties!” Overseas, Lord Palmerston remarked: “Any Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.” In Richmond, before the year was out, Davis branded Butler a felon, an outlaw, an enemy of mankind, and ordered that in the event of his capture “the officer in command of the capturing force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging.”
Southerners and their blushful friends abroad were not the only ones offended by the cock-eyed general’s zeal. Pro-Union men of the region he controlled found that they too came under his strictures, particularly in economic matters such as the seizure of cotton and the freezing of foreign funds, and they were equally vociferous in protest. But Lincoln had little use or sympathy for them. If these riders on the ship of state thought they were “to touch neither a sail nor a pump, but to be merely passengers—deadheads at that—to be carried snug and dry throughout the storm, and safely landed right side up,” they were mistaken. He gave them a midsummer warning that the voyage was about to get rougher.
“The true remedy,” he said, switching metaphors, “does not lie in rounding the rough angles of the war, but in removing the necessity for war.” This they could accomplish, he replied to one protestant, by bringing Louisiana back into the Union. Otherwise, “it is for them to consider whether it is probable I will surrender the government to save them from losing all. If they decline what I suggest, you scarcely need to ask what I will do. What would you do in my position? Would you drop the war where it is? Or would you prosecute it in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rosewater? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied?” The questions were rhetorical, and he closed by answering them: “I am in no boastful mood. I shall do no more than I can, and I shall do all I can, to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”
Already he had sent an official observer, a Maryland senator, down to New Orleans to look into the situation. But when the senator reported that there was indeed much harshness and irregularity (Butler’s brother was getting rich on confiscated cotton, and the general himself had been given the nickname “Spoons,” implying considerable deftness in the execution of his duties) as well as much disturbance of the master-slave relationship by the enlistment of Negroes in labor battalions, Lincoln was even more forthright in his statement of conditions and intentions: “The people of Louisiana—all intelligent people everywhere—know full well that I never had a wish to touch the foundations of their society or any right of theirs. With perfect knowledge of this they forced a necessity upon me to send armies among them, and it is their own fault, not mine, that they are annoyed.” Here again the remedy was reëntry into the Union. “And might it not be well for them to consider whether they have not already had time enough to do this? If they can conceive of anything worse … within my power, would they not better be looking out for it?…. I am a patient man, always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance. Still, I must save this Government if possible. What I cannot do, of course, I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”
The unplayed card was emancipation. Mindful, so far, of his inaugural statement: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so,” Lincoln had resisted all efforts to persuade him to repudiate his words. He resisted mainly on practical grounds, considering the probable reaction in the border states; “We should lose more than we should gain,” he told one Jacobin delegation. Not only had he refused to issue such a proclamation as they were urging on him, he had revoked three separate pronouncements or proclamations issued by subordinates: one by Frémont, one by Cameron, and recently a third by Hunter in South Carolina. In the instance of the latter revocation, however, he had shown which way his mind was turning in mid-May: “Whether it be competent for me, as Commander in Chief of the army and navy, to declare the slaves of any state or states free, and whether, at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself.”
This was putting a new face on the matter. What a President had no right or inclination to do in peacetime, Lincoln was saying, might become an indispensable necessity for a wartime Commander in Chief. Besides, he had done some ciphering back in March, and had come up with a simple dollars-and-cents solution to the problem. Figuring the cost of the war at two million dollars a day, and the cost of slaves at four hundred dollars a head, he had found the value of Delaware’s 1798 slaves to be less than the cost of half a day of fighting. Extending his computations on this basis, he found that the total value of the 432,622 slaves in the District of Columbia and the four border states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri—amounted to less than the cost of three months of warfare. Accordingly, he laid these figures before Congress in support of a resolution proposing compensated emancipation. In early April it was adopted, despite the objections of abolitionists who considered it highly immoral to traffic thus in souls; but nothing practical came of it, because the slave-state legislatures would not avail themselves of the offer. Lincoln was saddened by this failure, and on revoking Hunter’s proclamation the following month addressed a special plea to the people of the border region: “I do not argue—I beseech you to make arguments for yourselves. You cannot, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times. I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partisan politics. This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproaches upon any. It acts not the Pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything. Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as in the providence of God it is now your high privilege to do. May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.”
The signs of the times were indeed plain to read; they had in fact the glistening clarity of wet paint, most of them having been posted about the legislative landscape during the current session of Congress. In March, subscribing to the opinion that the Dred Scott decision did not constitute law, the members fulfilled a Republican campaign promise by passing an act prohibiting slavery in all present or future national territories. The following month, the “peculiar institution” was abolished in the District of Columbia, with compensation for the owners and provisions for colonization of the freedmen, which Lincoln considered the best practical solution to the problem. “There has never been in my mind any question upon the subject,” he declared as he signed the bill, “except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances.” In May, the United States and Britain agreed by treaty to coöperate in suppressing the slave trade: a diplomatic move that gave much pleasure to the Jacobins, whom Lincoln had been at pains to please whenever he could. For their sake he had proposed that the country give formal recognition to the Negro republics of Haiti and Liberia, which Congress gladly did, and back in February—despite the known leniency of his nature in such matters—he sustained the sentence of execution brought against Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine, the first and only slave trader ever hanged in accordance with Federal law.
Gratifying as all this was, including the hanging, the Jacobins were by no means satisfied. They wanted more, much more, and they never stopped letting Lincoln know it. “The pressure in this direction is still upon me and increasing,” he said on July 12 when he called twenty border-state congressmen into his office for a final appeal before next week’s adjournment sent them scattering for their homes. He spoke of the continuing attempts by the seceded states to persuade their sister slave communities farther north to join them in revolt—attempts which, incidentally, if successful would deprive these representatives of their jobs. The pull was strong, Lincoln admitted, and he wanted these men to help him weaken it. “You and I know what the lever of their power is. Break that lever before their faces and they can shake you no more forever.” Besides, he said, slavery was failing fast already. “If the war continues long … the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion.… How much better for you and for your people to take the step which at once shortens the war and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event.”
They heard him out, and then they shook their heads. The adopted resolution not only seemed to them a violation of State Rights, but they also questioned the constitutional power of Congress to appropriate funds for such a purpose. What was more, they doubted the sincerity of their fellow congressmen; the offer, one of the callers said, “was but the enunciation of a sentiment which could not or was not likely to be reduced to an actual tangible proposition.” If Congress really meant it, let the money be put in the President’s hands, and then they would consider acceptance. Then too—though this objection went unspoken—the plan entailed payment in government bonds, and though slave property was admittedly precarious and declining fast in value, the national credit was declining even faster. In short, they wanted no part of the offer as things now stood. Respectfully they bowed and took their leave, and Lincoln was left saddened and alone.
Left alone, he would act alone. He knew well enough the arguments against what McClellan, four days before, had called “a declaration of radical views” on the slavery issue: possible loss of the border states, possible loss of large segments of the army through desertion, possible loss of the fall elections. He knew, too, of currents that ran deeper—of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, for example, who had warned in a widely reprinted official declaration: “We, Catholics, and a vast majority of our brave troops in the field, have not the slightest idea of carrying on a war that costs so much blood and treasure just to gratify a clique of Abolitionists in the North.” A Westerner, Lincoln knew the rabid division on the subject in the West, where candidates were tagged “charcoal” and “snowflake” in anger and derision, regardless of party. Such considerations, the concrete along with the nebulous, had weight. But he also knew the arguments in favor of positive action. First, it would allay the danger of foreign intervention by engaging the sympathy and arousing the enthusiasm of the rank and file of Europe, against which not even the most avid of the pro-Confederate rulers and ministers would dare to act. Second, whatever it did to the Democrats here at home, it would heal the split in his own party, which was rapidly getting out of hand.
Beyond if not above all these, and entirely aside from his promises to those who claimed to have removed themselves from his authority, there was the question of personal ethics, of whether the considered step was consonant with honor. He had called the nation to arms in support of a single issue, the preservation of the Union; could he now adopt a second—superimpose it, so to speak—without being guilty of chicanery or worse? He believed he could, and he based his persuasion on necessity. “Things had gone on from bad to worse,” he later explained, “until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game.” The truth was, the war had already outlasted the heady burst of enthusiasm that had flared up after Sumter. What was needed was a new cause, not to supplant, but to supplement the old; and this was it. Having appealed at the outset to reason, he now would appeal to conscience. He would translate the conflict into the terms of a holy war—a crusade—for which Julia Ward Howe had already composed the anthem:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea …
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Before the night was over, though the details were still to be worked out, he had completed his decision. He would do it. And next afternoon—much to their surprise, since always before, as one of them said, “he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the general government with the subject”—he spoke of it to two members of his cabinet.
The occasion was a funeral; the Stantons had lost a new-born child, and Lincoln rode to the burial in a carriage with Welles and Seward. According to Welles, the President “dwelt earnestly on the gravity, importance, and delicacy” of the slavery question and the advisability of issuing an emancipation proclamation “in case the rebels did not cease to persist in their war on the government … of which he saw no evidence.” He said he “had about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Asked for their opinions on the matter, both men were at first too taken aback by what Welles called “this new departure” to say anything at all. Seward, recovering first, replied that “his present opinion inclined to the measure as justifiable,” but he would rather think the matter through before giving a final answer. Welles said he felt the same way about it. Lincoln let it go at that, though he made it clear that he was “earnest in the conviction that something must be done.”
Four days later, July 17, Congress came very close to stealing his thunder. In August of the previous year, this body had passed a Confiscation Act endorsing Butler’s contention that the slaves of disloyal masters were “contraband,” liable to seizure and eligible for freedom on entering Union lines. Now, in the final hours before adjournment of the current session, a second such Act was passed. Considerably sharper-toothed than the one that had gone before, it provided “That every person who shall hereafter commit the crime of treason against the United States, and shall be adjudged guilty thereof, shall suffer death, and all his slaves, if any, shall be declared and made free.” Discretion was left to the courts as to whether a prison term and/or a fine should be substituted in lieu of the death penalty, but no leeway was allowed as to the disposition of a traitor’s slaves, who were automatically freed upon his conviction. At first glance, with nearly the whole slave region in rebellion, this appeared to be the very proclamation Lincoln was considering. However, closer reading showed it to be no such thing. No slave was to be freed by it until his master had been convicted of treason in a federal court. There was the rub. Secession—or rebellion, as the Jacobins preferred to call it—might be treason, but no court had ever said so (or ever would say so) no matter what opinion the radicals had on the matter. All the Acts really did was provide a sanctuary for such slaves as crossed the Federal lines: with the result that the U.S. government became, in effect, the greatest slaveholder the world had ever known, not excepting the Pharaohs of Egypt.
Lincoln doubted the legality of the Act; “It is startling to say that Congress can free a slave within a State,” he declared in a veto message which he had prepared against its passage. All the same, he signed it as soon as it reached his desk; but in doing so he forwarded the proposed veto message in order to make his objections part of the record when the legislation was tested in the courts. Read in both houses as a prelude to adjournment, the message was greeted with sneers and laughter by the radicals, who took it as an admission that when the chips were down he did not dare to oppose them with anything but words.
In this they were much mistaken, though words were very much a part of what he had in mind. On July 22, to the surprise of all but Welles and Seward, who had been prepared for something of the sort by his remarks in the funeral carriage nine days back, he read to the assembled cabinet an emancipation proclamation which he proposed to issue without delay. Unlike the Confiscation Act, which required that individuals be convicted of treason before their slaves were freed, Lincoln’s edict left no burden of proof upon the government. He intended it as a military pronouncement, designed to help win the war, and that was all. He was not concerned with “legality,” as such, since he did not deal with individuals as such; all he required was that they live within an area where the authorities, after a specified date, continued to defy the federal government. The object of the war, he repeated, was the preservation of the Union; “And as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or States wherein the constituted authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever be free.”
Reactions varied. Chase and Stanton approved, but wanted it stronger; Bates wanted it as it was; Welles wanted it weaker; Blair and Smith did not want it at all, or at least not before the fall elections. Then Seward spoke, having turned the matter over in his mind. “Mr President,” he said, “I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great that I fear the effect of so important a step. It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government. It will be considered our last shriek on the retreat. Now, while I approve the measure, I suggest, sir, that you postpone its issue until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war.”
Lincoln had not considered this aspect of the question, but now that he did so, he perceived its wisdom and acted in accord with Seward’s view. “I put the draft of the proclamation aside,” he later told an artist friend, “as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory.” Halleck, the man he counted on to give him one, was on the way at last: would arrive, in fact, tomorrow. Meanwhile, this thunderbolt would keep.
There was gloom in the West as in the East, but it was of a different nature, proceeding from different causes. Here too the advance had stalled; yet it was precisely in this apparent similarity that the difference obtained. McClellan had been stopped by Lee, but Halleck stopped himself. Curiously enough, or perhaps not curiously at all, the men on the Peninsula who had fought and fallen back, fighting as they went, had developed a fierce pride that burned brighter at the end of their retreat than it had ever burned before; they had fought well and they knew it; whereas Halleck’s soldiers felt less elation at the end of their burrowing advance than at the start, not having fought at all. That was the source of a different kind of gloom.
Sherman did not share it, still being happy with the new stars on his shoulders and the sense of having “found” himself in the ordeal of Shiloh. But when he called by army headquarters not long after the fall of Corinth, he heard something that caused him to suspect that his friend Grant was in lower spirits than ever. Halleck happened to remark that Grant had applied for a thirty-day leave; he was going away next morning. Halleck said he did not know why, but Sherman took it to mean that Grant, “chafing under the slights,” intended this as a first step in submitting his resignation. Determined to stop him if he could, Sherman rode over and found him sitting in his tent, sorting some letters and tying them into bundles with red tape. Grant said it was true that he was leaving, and when the red-headed general asked him why, he replied: “Sherman, you know. You know I am in the way here. I have stood it as long as I can, and can endure it no longer.”
Where was he going? “St Louis,” Grant said. Did he have any business there? “Not a bit,” Grant said. So Sherman, being then in what he called “high feather,” began to argue with him, illustrating Grant’s case with his own. Look at him, he said. They had called him crazy as a loon, but he had hung on through Shiloh, and “that single battle had given me new life.” Besides, if Grant went away, “events would go right along, and he would be left out; whereas, if he remained, some happy accident might restore him to favor and his true place.” This had its effect; Grant promised to wait, or at any rate not to leave without seeing Sherman again or sending him word. Satisfied, Sherman left, and before the week was out received a note from Grant. He had reconsidered; he would stay. Sherman replied that he was glad to hear it; “for you could not be quiet at home for a week when armies were moving.”
Armies were moving now, though not in the direction of the Confederates who had fallen back before them. Like a man riding an oversized mettlesome horse, which he feared might take the bit in its teeth and bolt off with him any minute, Halleck kept as close a rein as possible on his 120,000-man army. Even so, the advance had already covered more ground than he had intended. Once he had accomplished what he set out for—in particular, control of a sizeable stretch of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad—he was more than ready to call a halt and consolidate his gains. Four days after the occupation of Corinth, he warned the commander of the pursuit against goading the rebels into rashness. All he wanted, he said, was for them to fall back far enough to be beyond reach of the railroad. And he added: “There is no object in bringing on a battle if this object can be obtained without one. I think by showing a bold front for a day or two the enemy will continue his retreat, which is all that I desire.”
Having withheld his army from pursuit, he now proceeded to dismember it. Eastward, westward, even northward he dispersed it: every way, in fact, but southward. On June 9 he instructed Pope—who presently was on his way to Washington, superseded by Rosecrans—to draw back closer to Corinth and take up outpost positions to defend it. And that same day the scattering began: a scattering that divided the Grand Army into four main parts, rather as if the aforementioned timid rider had decided not only to get rid of his mettlesome horse, but to do so by having it drawn and quartered. Buell was ordered east with four divisions to make connection with Ormsby Mitchel, who had encountered so much difficulty in North Alabama; his goal was Chattanooga, which would put him within possible reach of Knoxville or Atlanta. Sherman was sent west; he would garrison Memphis with two divisions, repairing the railroad on the way and doing what he could to restore the wrecked economy by “assur[ing] all country people that they will be permitted to take their cotton freely to market and that the ordinary channels of trade will be immediately reopened.” McClernand, with a similar force, was given a similar mission, except that his destination lay fifty miles north at Jackson, Tennessee; he too was to repair the lines of supply and give the “country people” whatever assurance was needed to make them happy. Halleck himself would remain with the force at Corinth, coördinating the efforts of the other three.
His main concern in ordering the dispersal, he told Stanton, was the “sanitary condition” of the men. At present it was good, he said, but the question arose: “Can it be kept so during the summer?” He thought it could, provided he steered clear of a southward advance; for “if we follow the enemy into the swamps of Mississippi there can be no doubt that the army will be disabled by disease.” (At least one of the general’s wool-clad soldiers agreed with him. After being exposed to what Halleck was now avoiding, an Indiana veteran declared: “You load a man down with a sixty-pound knapsack, his gun and forty rounds of ammunition, a haversack full of hardtack and sow belly, and a three-pint canteen full of water, then start him along this narrow roadway with the mercury up to 100 and the dust so thick you could taste it, and you have done the next thing to killing this man outright.”) “And yet,” Halleck wrote, “to lie still, doing nothing, will not be satisfactory to the country nor conducive to the health of the army.” He had therefore “deemed it best” to do as he had done. There was one drawback, one calculated risk: “This plan is based on the supposition that the enemy will not attempt an active campaign during the summer months. Should he do so … the present dispositions must be varied to suit the change of circumstances.”
One immediate result the shake-up had. George Thomas returned to his old division, which was stationed under Halleck’s eye at Corinth, and Grant was restored to the command of his old Army of the Tennessee, which included the divisions under Sherman and McClernand. Receiving permission to establish headquarters at Memphis, he set out on June 21 with a dozen troopers as escort, and after narrowly escaping capture on the way—Confederate horsemen, tipped off that he was coming, missed intercepting him by less than an hour—arrived three days later to find affairs “in rather bad order, secessionists governing much in their own way.” He reported that there was even a plot to burn the city, which he thought might “prove partially successful,” though he believed that such an action would “operate more against the rebels than ourselves.” The main thing he needed, he told Halleck, was more troops.
Old Brains was in no mood just now to give him anything but trouble. By the end of June they had renewed their old-time wrangle. Halleck began it, wiring: “You say 30,000 men are at Shelbyville to attack La Grange. Where is Shelbyville? I can’t find it on any map. Don’t believe a word about an attack in large force on La Grange or Memphis. Why not send out a strong reconnaissance and ascertain the facts? It looks very much like a mere stampede. Floating rumors must never be received as facts.… I mean to make somebody responsible for so gross a negligence.” Grant replied: “I did not say 30,000 troops at Shelbyville, but at Abbeville, which is south of Holly Springs, on the road to Grenada.” Then he too got his back up. “I heed as little of floating rumors about this city as anyone,” he protested. He had asked for more troops, he said, “that I might do effectively what you now ask. Stampeding is not my weakness. On the contrary, I will always execute any order to the best of my ability with the means at hand.” Halleck drew in his horns at this, replying four days later: “I made no insinuation that there had been the slightest neglect on your part.… Nor did I suppose for a moment that you were stampeded; for I know that is not in your nature.” Then—as if he had leaned down to stroke Old Rover, only to have Old Rover snap at his hand—he added: “I must confess that I was very much surprised at the tone of your dispatch and the ill-feeling manifested in it, so contrary to your usual style, and especially toward one who has so often befriended you when you were attacked by others.”
This was more or less the note on which the other hassle had ended, four months back; Grant was willing to let it go at that. But five days later, July 8, Halleck was at him again: “The Cincinnati Gazette contains the substance of your demanding reinforcements and my refusing them. You either have a newspaper correspondent on your staff or your staff is very leaky.” Three days later, the Memphis telegraph receiver clacked off a blunt one dozen words from Corinth: “You will immediately repair to this place and report to these headquarters.”
Just what have I done now? Grant must have thought. It was not his way to worry, but he apparently had cause. For the past two weeks—and, indeed, before—Halleck had shown all the earmarks of a commander engaged in the old army game of needling an unwanted subordinate enough to keep him edgy and fatten the record against him, but of holding back from the big pounce until something downright ruinous turned up to head the list of charges and specifications. Whether his sin was one of omission or commission, Grant did not know, though he had three full days for wondering while his horse retraced the steps taken three weeks ago with its head in the opposite direction. At last, July 15, the worried general reached Corinth and was face to face with his tormentor. What he was confronted with, however, was not the climax to a series of well-organized reproaches, but rather the accomplishment of the “happy accident” Sherman had persuaded him to wait for. Halleck was ordered to Washington to take over the direction of all the armies, East and West, and Grant was to receive, by seniority, the lion’s share of what he left behind. Specifically, this included command of two armies—his own, now under McClernand and Sherman, and Pope’s, now under Rosecrans—and of the department embracing North Mississippi, West Tennessee, and Kentucky west of the Cumberland River.
He had what he wanted, but not as he preferred it. The fact was, he disapproved of nearly all that had been done since Halleck’s arrival from St Louis, later saying: “For myself I am satisfied Corinth could have been captured in a two days’ campaign commenced promptly on the arrival of reinforcements after the battle of Shiloh.” Most of all he disapproved of what had been done, or left undone, since Beauregard’s sly evacuation of Corinth. With the Mississippi in Union hands, northward above Baton Rouge and southward below Memphis, “the Confederates at the west were narrowed down for all communication with Richmond to the single line of road running east from Vicksburg.” That was the true goal now: that city, that stretch of river, that railroad. “To dispossess them of this … would be equal to the amputation of a limb in its weakening effects.” As he saw it, “after the capture of Corinth a moveable force of 80,000 men, besides enough to hold all the territory acquired, could have been set in motion for the accomplishment of [this] great campaign for the suppression of the rebellion.” Thus Grant, by hindsight. But Halleck could not see it, or else he feared to undertake it, and “the work of depletion commenced.”
Even so, when he wound up his paperwork and departed for Washington two days later, he left his successor in immediate command of more than the 80,000 troops which Grant afterwards said would have been enough for the taking of Vicksburg that summer. The trouble was, they were far from “moveable,” except when they were needed as reinforcements in adjoining departments. Before he had been at his post a week he was ordered to send a division to strengthen Samuel Curtis, who had marched from Northwest Arkansas to Helena, where the St Francis River flowed into the Mississippi, fifty airline miles below Memphis. Still, this left Grant with well over 75,000 effectives. Sherman had 16,000 at Memphis, and McClernand had 10,000 around Jackson. Another 7500 were stationed at Columbus, Cairo, and Paducah, while the rest of the Army of the Tennessee, 12,000 men under Major General E. O. C. Ord—a West Point classmate of Halleck’s, just arrived from Virginia—were at Corinth. Rosecrans’ Army of the Mississippi, 32,000 strong, was spread along a thirty-five-mile front that extended from south of Corinth to Cherokee, Alabama.
It was a sizeable force, but deep in enemy country as he was, charged with the consolidation of all that had been gained since Donelson and Shiloh, Grant found that its very size increased his major immediate problem: which was how to keep it fed and equipped. Just as the foregoing spring had set records for rainfall, so now the summer was breaking records for drouth, and as a result the Tennessee River was all but worthless as a supply line. So was the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, for the rebels had torn up the track between Chewalla and Grand Junction, and west of there the line had had to be abandoned for lack of rolling stock. All that was left him—except in Memphis, which of course could be supplied by river; the Mississippi never got really thirsty—was the slender thread of the Mobile & Ohio, stretching back to Columbus across more than a hundred miles of guerilla-infested West Tennessee, vulnerable throughout its length to attack by bands of regular and irregular cavalry, equally skilled at burning bridges and wrecking culverts, of which there were many. Tactically, too, the problems were not simple. Principal among them was the presence in North Mississippi of a highly mobile Confederate force, reckoned at 35,000 men, under the command of the resourceful and diabolical Earl Van Dorn, who sooner or later was probably going to succeed in one of his hair-trigger schemes. Its strength was less than half Grant’s own, but its advantages were large. Van Dorn, for example, did not have to post a single man on guard in his rear, and best of all—or worst—he could choose the point of attack. He could strike the unconnected extremities, Corinth at one end, Memphis at the other, or he could pierce the lightly held center and knife straight through for Bolivar, Jackson, or Brownsville. What was more, he could choose the time.
Grant did not look forward to the coming months. Committed as he was to the defensive—much as he had been while biding his time before Shiloh—this was still not his kind of war. It was true, he had learned from what had happened then; from now on, he would keep in close touch with his field commanders and see to it that they had their men intrench. But he still did not like it, and he declared long afterwards that these midsummer months had been for him “the most anxious period of the war.”
Discontent was general—amphibious, so to speak. For the navy, too, the successes of late spring and early summer, up and down the falling river, north and south of Vicksburg, were followed by a hot-weather season of doubts and tribulations. Every victory was accompanied by a setback, and the fruits thereof were bitter, their savor turning to ashes in the mouth. For Flag Officers Farragut and Davis, as for Grant, the midsummer word was anxious.
Davis ran into trouble first. As if Plum Run Bend had not been proof enough that his ironclads were vulnerable, it was presently reproved in backwoods Arkansas, and on one of the resurrected victims of that earlier disaster. In the course of his eastward march from Pea Ridge to Helena, Curtis had to cross White River: a task that was complicated by the presence of a Confederate fort at St Charles, sixty miles from the mouth. Given orders to reduce it immediately after his Memphis triumph, Davis assigned the mission to four gunboats and an Indiana regiment which went along in transports. Raised, pumped out, and patched, the Mound City had the flag; this was her first outing since her encounter with the Van Dorn, back in May. When the flotilla came within sight of the fort, June 17, the Hoosier colonel requested permission to assault by land—there were only just over a hundred rebels in the place—but the naval commander refused to yield or even share the honors. Closing with the flagship, he opened fire at point-blank range: whereupon the fort replied with a 42-pound solid that pierced the Mound City’s casemate and went right through her steam drum, scalding to death or drowning 125 out of her crew of 175 men, injuring 25 more, and leaving only 25 unhurt. (It was freakish in more ways than one, including arithmetically; for the round-looking casualty figures were exact.) Helpless, the ironclad went with the current and the other gunboats withdrew, leaving the proposed reduction to the Indianians, who encircled the fort and took it without the loss of a man. Davis had himself another victory, though he had it at far from a bargain price and the credit went to the army.
Farragut’s troubles, downriver, were at once less bloody and more personal, and having a slopjar emptied onto his head from a French Quarter window was only the least of them. Five days after congratulating him for his “magnificent execution” and “unparalleled achievements” at New Orleans, Assistant Secretary Fox heard that the Tennessee sailor had abandoned the attempt against Vicksburg. “Impossible!” Fox cried. “Sending the fleet up to meet Commodore Davis was the most important part of the whole expedition. The instructions were positive.” Quickly he reiterated them in triplicate, dispatching the original and two copies in three different ships to make certain of delivery: “It is of paramount importance that you go up and clear the river with utmost expedition. Mobile, Pensacola, and, in fact, the whole coast sinks into insignificance compared with this.” Two days later he repeated the admonition in a second dispatch, invoking the support of higher authority: “The President requires you to use your utmost exertions (without a moment’s delay, and before any other naval operation shall be permitted to interfere) to open the Mississippi and effect a junction with Flag Officer Davis.”
On his previous trip upriver, Farragut had explained to Butler why he did not think a limited expedition against Vicksburg should be undertaken: “As they have so large a force of soldiers here, several thousand in and about the town, and the facility of bringing in 20,000 in an hour by railroad from Jackson, altogether, [I] think it would be useless to bombard it, as we could not hold it if we take it.” He still felt that way about it; but the orders from Fox, which presently arrived, left him no choice. He put the fleet in order for the 400-mile ascent, taking part of Porter’s mortar flotilla with him this time, as well as 3000 men from Butler, and came within sight of Vicksburg’s red clay bluff on the same day the Mound City took the solid through her boiler. He was back again, and though he still did not like the task before him, he wrote home that he was putting his trust in the Lord: “If it is His pleasure to take me, may He protect my wife and boy from the rigors of a wicked world.”
He spent ten days reëxamining the problem and giving the mortars time to establish ranges. Then on the night of June 27 he made his run. Eleven warships were in the 117-gun column: three heavy sloops, two light sloops, and six gunboats. Skippers of the eight smaller vessels were instructed to hug the western bank while the large ones took the middle, the Richmond leading because her chase guns were situated best for high-angle fire, then the flagship Hartford, and finally the Brooklyn, lending a heavy sting to the tail. Two hours after midnight the attack signal was hoisted, and for the next three hours it was New Orleans all over again—except that this time the rebel gunners, high on their 200-foot bluff, were taking little punishment in return. Down on the river, by contrast, everything was smoke and uproar; the Brooklyn and two of the gunboats were knocked back, and all of the others were hit repeatedly. Total casualties were 15 killed and 30 wounded. But when daylight came, eight of the ships were beyond the hairpin turn, and Farragut was farther from salt water than he had been since he first left Tennessee to join the navy, more than fifty years before.
Two days later, July 1, Davis brought his gunboats down from Memphis and the two fleets were joined. There was much visiting back and forth, much splicing of the main brace—and with cause. Upper and nether millstones had come together at last, and now there was not even grist between them.
There, precisely, was the trouble; for now that Farragut was up here, there was nothing left for him to do. The day before the blue-water ships steamed past the batteries, Colonel A.W. Ellet, his brother’s successor, took two of his rams up the Yazoo River, which emptied into the Mississippi a dozen miles above Vicksburg, to investigate a report that the rebels had three gunboats lurking there. It turned out to be true, one of them being the Van Dorn, only survivor of the Memphis rout; but all three were set afire as soon as the rams hove into view, and Ellet came back out again to report that he had destroyed the fag end of Confederate resistance on the western rivers. Then the Gulf squadron made its run and the two fleets rode at anchor, midway between Vicksburg and the mouth of the Yazoo. As far as Farragut could see, however, all the exploit had really yielded was more proof that he could take his ships past fortifications: a fact he had never doubted in the first place. “We have done it,” he informed the Department, “and can do it again as often as may be required of us.” Just now, though, what he mainly wanted was a breath of salt air in his lungs. Requesting permission from Washington to go back downriver again, he emphasized the point that there were now two fleets biding their time in an area where there was not even work enough for one.
While awaiting an answer he did what he could to keep his sailors busy, including having them fire a high-noon 21-gun salute in celebration of the Fourth. The 3000 soldiers were no problem in this respect. With an ingenuity worthy of Butler himself, their commander Brigadier General Thomas Williams had them digging a canal across the narrow tongue of land dividing the shanks of the hairpin bend in front of Vicksburg. When the river rose, the general said, it would widen the ditch and sluice out a passage for the fleet, beyond the range of the batteries on the bluff. But there was the rub. The river was not rising; it was falling. It was falling so fast, in fact, that Farragut had begun to fear that his deep-draft sea-going fleet would be stranded up here all summer. On July 13 he sent a wire which he hoped would jog the Department into action on his request: “In ten days the river will be too low for the ships to go down. Shall they go down, or remain up the rest of the year?”
One problem more there was, though he did not consider it a matter for real concern, never having had much of an ear for rumor. In addition to the three gunboats whose destruction Ellet had effected when he appeared up the Yazoo, there were whispers that the Confederates were building themselves an ironclad up there. Farragut did not give the rumor much credence. Even if it were true, he said, there was small chance that the rebels would ever be able to use such a craft, bottled up as she was, with two powerful Federal fleets standing guard in the Mississippi, just below the only point of exit. “I do not think she will ever come forth,” he reported.
Davis was not so sure. Unlike Farragut, he had Plum Run Bend in his memory, which had taught him what havoc a surprise attack could bring. Determined not to suffer such a reverse again, he ordered three warships up the Yazoo to investigate and take up lookout stations. They left immediately after early breakfast, July 15: the ironclad Carondelet, the wooden gunboat Tyler, and the steam ram Queen of the West.
The rumors were all too true, as Farragut was about to discover. The mystery ship was the Arkansas, floated unfinished down the Mississippi and towed up the Yazoo to Greenwood after the fall of Island Ten exposed her to capture in Memphis. Naval Lieutenant Isaac Newton Brown, a forty-five-year-old Kentuckian who had held the same rank as a Vera Cruz veteran in the old navy, which he had entered from Mississippi nearly thirty years ago, was given command of her in late May, together with orders to “finish and equip that vessel without regard to expenditure of men or money.”
He did not realize what a large order this was until he got to Greenwood and saw her. Unfinished was not the word; she was scarcely even begun.
“The vessel was a mere hull, without armor. The engines were apart. Guns without carriages were lying about the deck. A portion of the railroad iron intended as armor was at the bottom of the river, and the other and far greater part was to be sought for in the interior of the country.” So he later reported; but now he got to work. After a day spent fishing up the sunken iron, he towed the skeleton Arkansas 150 miles downriver to Yazoo City, where the facilities were better, though not much. Scouring the plantations roundabout, he set up fourteen forges on the river bank and kept them going around the clock, rural blacksmiths pounding at the wagonloads of scrap iron brought in from all points of the compass. Two hundred carpenters added to the din, hammering, sawing, swarming over the shield and hull. Perhaps the biggest problem was the construction of carriages for the guns; nothing of the sort had ever been built in Mississippi; but this too was met by letting the contract to “two gentlemen of Jackson,” who supplied them from their Canton wagon factory. Other deficiencies could not be overcome, and were let go. Since there was no apparatus for bending the iron around the curve of the vessel’s quarter or stern, for example, boiler plate was tacked over these parts—“for appearance’ sake,” Brown explained. Also, the paint was bad. She was intended to be chocolate brown, the color of the river, but no matter how many coats were applied she kept her original hue, rusty red. Despite all this, the work in the improvised yard went on. Within five weeks, according to one of her lieutenants, “we had a man-of-war (such as she was) from almost nothing.”
By July 12 she was as finished as she would ever be. Brown sent the mechanics ashore and dropped down to Sartartia Bar, where, as he later said, “I now gave the executive officer a day to organize and exercise his men.” In the crew of about 175, two thirds were from the recently burned gunboats; the rest were infantry volunteers, distributed among the ten guncrews serving weapons of various calibers, three in each broadside, two forward, and two aft. July 14, the descent resumed. Fifteen miles below, at the mouth of the Sunflower River—the guns of the two Union fleets, engaged in target practice out on the Mississippi, were plainly audible from here—it was discovered that steam from the engines and boiler had penetrated the forward magazine. Brown tied up alongside a sawmill clearing, landed the wet powder, and spread it on tarpaulins to dry in the sun. “By constant shaking and turning,” he reported, “we got it back to the point of ignition before the sun sank below the trees.” Packing what they could of it into the after magazine, the guncrews came back aboard and the Arkansas continued on her way, “guns cast loose and men at quarters, expecting every moment to meet the enemy.”
At midnight her commander called a rest-halt near Haines Bluff; then at 3 a.m.—July 15—continued down the river. Information received from Vicksburg put the number of enemy warships at thirty-seven, and Brown intended to be among them by daylight, with every possible advantage of surprise. It was not to be. The twin-screw vessel’s engines had a habit of stopping on dead center, one at a time, which would throw her abruptly into bank, despite the rudder, and this was what happened now in the predawn darkness. While the rest of the crew was engaged in getting her off again, a lieutenant went ashore in search of information. He came to a plantation house, but found that the residents had fled at the first sound of a steamer on the river. All that was left was one old Negro woman, and she would tell him nothing, not even the whereabouts of her people. In fact, she would not admit that they had been there in the first place.
“They have but just left,” the lieutenant insisted. “The beds are yet warm.”
“Don’t know ‘bout that. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Do you take me for a Yankee? Don’t you see I wear a gray coat?”
“Certain you’s a Yankee,” the woman said. “Our folks aint got none them gumboats.”
It took an hour to get the unwieldy Arkansas underweigh again; the lieutenant returned from his profitless excursion with time to spare. Attempting to get back on schedule, Brown called for all the speed the engineers could give him, but it was by no means enough. When daylight filtered through, the ironclad was still in the Yazoo. The sun came up fiery as she entered Old River, a ten-mile lake formed by a cutoff from the Mississippi, and the lookout spotted three Union warships dead ahead, steaming upstream in line abreast, the Carondelet in the center, flanked by the Tyler and the Queen of the West. Brown made a brief speech, ending: “Go to your guns!” Stripped to the waist in the early morning heat, with handkerchiefs bound about their heads to keep the sweat from trickling into their eyes, the guncrews stood to their pieces. The officers, too, had removed their coats, and paced the sanded deck in their undershirts—all but Brown, who remained in full uniform, his short, tawny beard catching the breeze as he stood on the shield, directly over the bow guns, which he ordered not to fire until the action was fully joined, “lest by doing so we should diminish our speed.” He and the Carondelet’s captain, Henry Walke, had been friends in the old navy, messmates on a voyage around the world, and he wanted nothing to delay this first meeting since they had gone their separate ways.
The Federal skippers reacted variously to their first glimpse of the rust-red vessel bearing down on them out of nowhere. The Queen of the West, unarmed and with her speed advantage canceled by the current, turned at once and frankly ran. The CarondeletandTyler stayed on course, intending to fire their bow guns, then swing round and make a downstream fight with their stern pieces, hoping the noise would bring help from the rest of the fleet. Both fired and missed. By the time they had turned to run for safety, theArkansas was upon them.
She chose the Carondelet, the slower of the two, pumping shells into her lightly armored stern, which ate at her vitals and slowed her even more. The return shots glanced off the Arkansas’ prow, doing no considerable damage except to one seaman who, more curious than prudent, stuck his head out of a gunport for a better view and had it taken off by a bolt from an 8-inch rifle. The headless body fell back on the deck, and a lieutenant, fearing the sight would demoralize the rest of the guncrew, called upon the nearest man to heave it overboard. “Oh, I can’t do it, sir! It’s my brother,” he replied.
Other casualties followed, one among them being Brown himself. Most of the shots from dead ahead struck the inclined shield and were deflected back and upwards, ricocheting, but presently one did not carom high enough and Brown received what he later called “a severe contusion on the head.” He thought he was done for until he drew a handful of clotted blood from the wound and failed to find any particles of brain mixed in. He stayed at his post, continuing to direct both the gunnery and the navigation. Just then, however, the Tyler dropped back to help the crippled Carondelet, her riflemen firing volleys at Brown, the only live target outside the shield. A minie struck him over the left temple, tumbling him down a hatchway and onto the forward guns. When he regained consciousness, the aid men were laying him among the dead and wounded below deck. He promptly got up and returned to his place on the shield.
The Carondelet was much closer now, he saw, and so was the mouth of the river. Just as she reached it, and just as he was about to ram her stern, she veered into bank, leaking steam and frantic survivors from all her ports. Brown did not stay to complete her destruction or force her surrender. Instead, he took up pursuit of the Tyler, which by now had entered the Mississippi and was doing all she could to overtake the Queen. Aboard the fleet, the sailors had heard the firing, but had assumed that the boats were shelling snipers in the woods. Now they saw better, though they still did not understand what they saw. Observing the gunboat returning with a strange red vessel close on her heels, one officer remarked: “There comes the Tyler with a prize.”
They soon learned better. Within range of the fleet—“a forest of masts and smokestacks,” Brown called it; “In every direction, except astern, our eyes rested on enemies”—noting that the army rams were anchored behind the bigger ships, in position to dart out through the intervals, the Confederate skipper told his pilot: “Brady, shave that line of men-of-war as close as you can, so that the rams will not have room to gather headway in coming out to strike us.” Brady gave him what he asked for, and the second battle opened.
At its beginning, steam down, guns unloaded, not a single Federal vessel was prepared for action; but this was presently so thoroughly corrected that Brown could later say, “I had the most lively realization of having steamed into a real volcano.” Guns were flashing, and as he advanced “the line of fire seemed to grow into a circle constantly closing.” Even so, he saw one definite advantage to fighting solo from an interior position, and the Arkansas was not neglectful of it, “firing rapidly to every point of the circumference, without the fear of hitting a friend or missing an enemy.”
Now, though, she was taking about as much punishment as she gave. The big ocean-going sloops had run their guns out, and the Davis ironclads were firing for all they were worth. The Arkansas took hits from all directions. An 11-inch solid broke through her casemate armor and laid a sixteen-man guncrew dead and dying on her deck. A rifle bolt laid out eleven more. Shrapnel quickly gave her stack the look of a nutmeg grater, so that for lack of draft the pressure dropped from 120 pounds to 20, barely enough to turn the engines. The temperature in the fire-room soared to 130°, and the engineers worked fifteen-minute shifts, by the end of which they had to be hauled up, half-roasted, and relieved by men from the guns. Sixty dead and wounded men were in her; her cast-iron snout was broken off; one whole section of plating was ripped from her flank; her boats were shot away and dragging. However, she still was giving as good as she got, or better. Out on the shield, where he had had his spyglass shot from his hands, her captain had never stopped calling orders to the pilot house and guns. A ram broke into the clear at last, driving hard in a final effort to block the way; “Go through him, Brady!” Brown shouted. But one of the bow guns averted the need for a collision by putting a shell through the Federal’s boiler. Steam went up like a geyser and the bluejacket crew went overboard.
That was the final round. The Arkansas was into the clear, past the outer rim of the volcano. Limping badly, but unpursued, she held her course for Vicksburg, where a crowd had assembled on the bluff to greet her. Soldiers and townspeople alike, they tossed their hats in joy and admiration, but the cheers froze in their throats when they looked down and saw the carnage on her gundeck.
Farragut was infuriated. He had been sleeping late that morning, and when the cannonade erupted he appeared on the Hartford’s deck in his nightshirt. However, the flagship’s engines were under repair; there was nothing he could do but watch and fire at the strange vessel as it went by. When the action was over he surveyed the wreckage—which was not only considerable, but was largely self-inflicted by cross fire—then returned to his cabin, muttering as he went: “Damnable neglect, or worse, somewhere!”
The more he thought about it, the madder he got. By the time he came back on deck again, fully dressed, he had made up his mind to steam down to Vicksburg with all his ships and attack the Arkansas in broad open daylight, hillside batteries and all. His staff managed to dissuade him from this—at least give the fleet captains time to wash the blood from their scuppers, they said—but, even so, the old man would not be put off any longer than nightfall: Porter’s mortar schooners, together with the Brooklyn and the two laggard gunboats, were still below the city, where the apparently unsinkable rebel ironclad might engage them any minute. He ordered all guns loaded with solid and suspended his heaviest anchor from the tip of the Hartford’s port main-yardarm, intending to drop it through the Arkansas’ deck and bottom when he got alongside her. The Davis gunboats and the Porter mortars would give covering fire, above and below, while he went in and dragged the upstart monster from its lair. Just before sunset he hoisted the familiar pennant for attack, and the fleet moved downriver.
It did not work out at all the way he intended. For one thing, in the ruddy murk between sunset and dusk, the rust-red boat was almost invisible under the red clay bank. The first each skipper saw of her as the ships came past in single file, taking in turn a pounding from the batteries overhead, was the flash of her guns as he crossed her line of fire. By then it was too late to attempt to check up and grapple; all there was time for was one quick broadside in reply, before the current swept him out of range. Aboard theArkansas, dismay at having to fight the day’s third battle, tied to bank and with less than half her crew still functional, gave way to elation as the action progressed. One by one, the ships glided past with their towering spars in silhouette against the glow of the western cloudbank, and one by one they took them under fire, as if in a gigantic shooting gallery. But when the Hartford stood in close, groping blindly with the anchor swaying pendulous from her yardarm, and they loosed a broadside at her, she thundered back with a tremendous salvo. An 11-inch solid pierced the side of the Arkansas just above the waterline, crashed through the engine room, killing and mangling as it went, and lodged in the opposite casemate armor, making what one of her officers called “a bulging protuberance outside.” She kept firing until the river stopped sending her targets. Then once more there was silence.
Farragut was where he wanted to be, south of the infernal bluff, and he had made the downstream run with fewer casualties than before—5 killed, 16 wounded: only a handful more than his adversary had suffered—but he was far from satisfied. He wanted that ram, and he intended to have her, whatever the cost. At daylight he sent an urgent message to Davis, proposing that both fleets go in together at high noon and fight the rebel to a finish. Davis declined the invitation, counseling prudence and self-control. “I have watched eight rams for a month,” he replied, “and now find it no hard task to watch one.”
He continued to resist the pressure which Farragut kept applying. Five days later, July 21—the Arkansas having ventured out meanwhile on a sortie that was aborted by another engine failure—he agreed to make an attempt next morning with the ironcladEssexand the Queen of the West. The plan was for the gunboat to shove the rebel vessel hard against bank and hold her there, sitting-duck fashion, so that the ram could butt a hole in her side and send her to the bottom. But this did not work either. Brown had theArkansas moored with her head upstream, and when he saw the Essex coming at him he slacked his bow-line and presented his sharp armored prow to the blunt-nosed gunboat, which swerved at the last minute to avoid being sliced in two, taking and giving punishment as she passed. The Queen, following close behind, anxious to redeem her performance up the Yazoo the week before, could manage no more than a glancing blow. She worked her way back upstream, rejoining Davis, but the Essex went with the current, her engines badly shot up in the melee, and joined the fleet below.
Farragut threw up his hands at this. Fuel was low, and what with the need for keeping up steam in case the Arkansas staged another sudden appearance, was getting considerably lower every day. Sanitation was also a problem, as Halleck had foreseen. The swampy Mississippi heat had nearly half of Farragut’s sailors on the sick list, along with three quarters of the canal-digging soldiers. The falling river seemed about to make good its threat to strand him up here, out of circulation for the rest of the year. Besides, a message from Welles—sent before the Secretary learned of the rebel ram’s emergence—had just arrived: “Go down the river at discretion.” That was what Farragut did, and he did it without delay. Starting south on July 26, he dropped the orphaned Essex and two of the smaller wooden gunboats off at Baton Rouge, along with Williams’ shovel-weary soldiers, and put into New Orleans for repairs that would fit the rest of his salt-water ships for more agreeable blockade duty along the Gulf. Back in his native element at last, able to breathe all the way to the depths of his lungs, he said goodbye to the Mississippi—forever, he hoped.
Davis pulled out northward that same day, transferring his base to Helena, two hundred miles upstream. Vicksburg was delivered, along with a great stretch of the river between Napoleon and Natchez.
Welles was extremely angry when he heard the news. He told Farragut, “It is an absolute necessity that the neglect or apparent neglect of the squadron should be wiped out by the destruction of the Arkansas.” Nothing came of this as far as Farragut was concerned; he was downstream and he stayed there. But it was an event that rankled in the Secretary’s memory ever after—worse than Donelson, worse than Hampton Roads; worse, even, than Head of the Passes or Plum Run Bend. Bitter and chagrined, Welles later wrote: “The most disreputable naval affair of the war was the descent of the steam ram Arkansas through both squadrons, until she hauled into the batteries of Vicksburg, and there the two Flag Officers abandoned the place and the ironclad ram, Farragut and his force going down to New Orleans, and Davis proceeding with his flotilla up the river.”
On Vicksburg’s bluff, conversely, there was rejoicing and there was pride, not only because the naval siege had been raised, but also because of the manner in which the feat had been accomplished. The combined might of two victorious Union fleets had been challenged, sundered, and repulsed by a single homemade ten-gun ironclad, backed by the industry and daring of her builder and commander. Coming as it did, after a season of reverses, this exploit gave the people of the Lower Mississippi Valley a new sense of confidence and elation. They were glad to be alive in a time when such things could happen, and they asked themselves how a nation could ever be conquered when its destiny rested with men like those who served aboard the Arkansas under Isaac Newton Brown.
In the Transmississippi, too, there was the discomfort of indigestion, proceeding from a difficulty in assimilating all that had been gained.
Sam Curtis was glad to have the Davis rams and gunboats with him: almost as glad as he had been to receive the division from Grant, which reached Helena the week before and brought his total strength to 18,000. This was the largest force he had yet commanded, half again larger than the army with which he had won the Battle of Pea Ridge; but, as he saw it, he had need of every man and gun he could get, ashore or afloat. Looking back on that savage conflict, which involved the repulse of a slashing double envelopment by Price and McCulloch, with Van Dorn hovering wild-eyed in the background and swarms of painted Indians on his flank, he perceived a hundred things that might have spelled defeat if they had gone against instead of for him. It seemed to him now in late July that events were building up to another such encounter, in which the scales—balanced against him, he believed, as they had been in early March—might tip the other way.
For a time it had been otherwise. Through April and May he had occupied a vacuum, so to speak; Van Dorn and Price had crossed the Mississippi and left Arkansas to him. On the final day of May, however, this leisure season ended with the Confederate appointment of Major General Thomas C. Hindman, a Helena lawyer and congressman who had led a division at Shiloh, to command the area including Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana south to the Red, and Indian Territory. A dapper little man just over five feet tall, addicted to ruffled shirts and patent-leather boots, Hindman—like his predecessor, Earl Van Dorn—made up in activity for what he lacked in size. He had need of all his energy now. The situation on his arrival was about as bad as it could be, the scarcity of volunteers lending support to the postwar tall tale that the entire state of Montana was afterwards populated by rebel fugitives from Elkhorn Tavern; but he went immediately to work, issuing fiery proclamations and enforcing the new conscription law in his native state with troops brought from Texas. Lacking arms and munitions, he set up factories and chemical works to turn them out, operated lead mines and tan-yards, and even organized the women of his department into sewing circles to furnish uniforms for all the able-bodied men he could lay hands on. Word of his activity soon spread, and recruits began to trickle in from Missouri, some of whom he sent back home with orders to raise guerilla bands to harass the invader’s rear. Before long, Curtis was receiving intelligence reports that put the Confederate strength in midland Arkansas at 25,000 men.
His plan had been to march on Little Rock as soon as his army had recovered from its exertions, thus adding to the southern list of fallen capitals, but the presence of Hindman’s newborn army in that direction changed his mind. Instead, after much conferring back and forth with Washington, he moved toward Helena for a possible share in the amphibious descent of the Mississippi. Even that was hard enough. All through June, bridge-burners and irregular cavalrymen, instructed by Hindman to bushwhack Union pickets, destroy all food, and pollute the water “by killing cattle, ripping the carcasses open and throwing them in,” harassed his line of march and kept him in almost constant expectation of being swamped by overwhelming numbers. At last he reached the big river—only to find that the descent had been called off; Halleck was busy consolidating his gains. It was just as well, as far as Curtis was concerned. He began to fortify his Helena position, not knowing what all-out mischief Hindman might be plotting in the brush.
Even after the arrival of the division from Memphis and the ironclads from Vicksburg, together with siege guns brought downriver from Birds Point, Columbus, and Fort Pillow, he felt far from easy about his situation. Not only was there danger in front; he now learned of a new danger in his rear. The Missourians who had gone back home with instructions for making trouble were showing a good deal of talent for such work. Brigadier General John M. Schofield, the Federal commander there, reported that he had discovered “a well-devised scheme” for a monster guerilla outbreak involving thirty to fifty thousand men who were assembling now at designated places to await the appointed signal “and, by a sudden coup de main, seize the important points in the state, surprise and capture our small detachments guarding railroads, &c, thus securing arms and ammunition, and coöperate with an invading army from Arkansas.” He called on Curtis to deal with this invasion force, which had moved into the vacated area around Pea Ridge, while he did his best to deal with the guerillas. “You are aware, General, that I have no force sufficient to drive them back without your assistance,” he implored. “Let me ask you to act as quickly as possible.”
Curtis could not help him. If it came to the worst, he wasn’t even sure he could help himself. He had all sorts of troubles. As a result of trying to encourage trade in cotton, he said, his camp was “infested with Jews, secessionists, and spies.” Then too, his health was failing; or, as he put it, “I am not exactly well.” At any rate, whatever rebel hosts were gathering in Northwest Arkansas, the last thing he intended was a retracing of his steps on the harried march he had just completed. All he could do was hold what he had, probing occasionally at the country roundabout as the long hot summer wore on toward a close.
Schofield’s fears for Missouri were soon fulfilled, though in a less concerted fashion than he had predicted. No less than eighty skirmishes were fought there during July and August, including one that resulted in the capture of Independence by guerillas under Charles Quantrill, who presently was commissioned a Confederate captain as a reward for this exploit. Kansas too was threatened. Jim Lane, the grim Jayhawk chieftain, was raising Negro troops; “Zouaves d’Afrique,” they were called, for they drilled in baggy scarlet pantaloons Stanton had purchased, in the emergency, from France. North of there, in the absence of soldiers transferred south and east, the Minnesota Sioux went on the warpath, massacring settlers by the hundreds.
Everywhere Curtis looked he saw trouble, though most of it was fortunately well beyond his reach at Helena. Remaining in the fine big house on a hill overlooking the river—it was Hindman’s, or it had been; Curtis had taken it for his headquarters—he improved his fortifications, put his trust in the Mississippi as a supply line, and shook his head disapprovingly at the chaos all around him. “Society is terribly mutilated,” he reported.
At the opposite end of the western line, Buell was moving eastward; or he had been, anyhow, until he encountered troubles he would gladly have swapped for those of Curtis and Grant combined, with Schofield’s thrown in for good measure. As it turned out, he not only had supply and guerilla problems as acute as theirs; presently it became obvious, too, that his was the column that was to receive the main attention of the main Confederate army in the West—beginning with the twin thunderbolts, Morgan and Forrest, who were thrown at him soon after he got started.
In giving him instructions for the eastward move, ten days after the fall of Corinth, Halleck was heeding the repeated suggestion of Ormsby Mitchel, who for a month had been signaling frantically that he could see the end of the war from where he stood in Northeast Alabama. If he were reinforced, he said, he could march straight into Chattanooga, then turn south and take Atlanta. From there, he added, the way lay open to Richmond’s back door, through a region that was “completely unprotected and very much alarmed.” Old Brains could see merit in this—and he also saw a possible variation. Knoxville, too, lay beyond that mountain gateway: an objective he knew was dear to the heart of Lincoln, who was anxious to disenthrall the pro-Union citizens of East Tennessee and gain control of the railroad connecting Virginia and North Georgia. Accordingly, Halleck gave Buell his instructions on June 9 for a lateral offensive, the only one of any kind that he intended to launch in the West this summer, simultaneously notifying Washington of the intended movement, and two days later received the expected reply: Lincoln was “greatly delighted.”
The extent of the President’s delight was shown before the month was out. Alarmed by Lee’s assault on McClellan, who was crying for reinforcements as he fell back, the War Department called on the western commander for 25,000 troops to be shifted to the East; but when Halleck replied that to send them would mean that the Chattanooga expedition would have to “be abandoned or at least be diminished,” the reaction was immediate and negative, and it came in the form of a telegram from Lincoln himself. This must not be done on any account, he said. “To take and hold the railroad at or east of Cleveland, in East Tennessee, I think fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.”
By that time Buell was well on his way. He had by no means reached Cleveland—a junction thirty miles beyond his immediate objective, where the railroad, coming down from Knoxville, branched west to Chattanooga and south to Atlanta—but he had advanced his four divisions to Huntsville, having ferried the Tennessee River at Florence, and had repaired the Memphis & Charleston line as far east as Decatur. He had about 35,000 men in his present column, including cavalry and engineers, and Mitchel was waiting up ahead with 11,000 more. Off to the north, ready to coöperate as soon as Knoxville became the goal, George Morgan occupied Cumberland Gap with a division of 9000, which was also a component of Buell’s Army of the Ohio. In addition to these 55,000 troops, Thomas was at Iuka, awaiting orders to march east with his own division of 8000, plus two from Grant, which had been promised in case they were required. Just now, however, Buell did not want them. He was having trouble enough feeding the men he had, and the problem got progressively worse as he moved eastward, lengthening his supply line.
The 300 tons of food and forage needed daily—3¼ pounds for a man, 26 for a horse, 23 for a mule—were more than the guerilla-harried railroads could supply. Besides a shortage of rolling stock, destruction of the Elk River bridge on the Nashville-Decatur line necessitated a forty-mile wagon haul around the break, and sniper fire was so frequent and effective that ironclad boxcars had to be provided for the protection of the train crews. Buell put his men and animals on half rations, much to the discomfort of both. “We are living from day to day on short supplies and our operations are completely crippled,” he complained to the Louisville quartermaster. Ahead, he knew, lay additional problems: the river crossing at Bridgeport, for example. Retiring from in front of Chattanooga the month before, Mitchel had burned the mile-long span, and Buell had no material with which to build another. In an attempt to fill the shortage and make amends, Mitchel ordered all the sawmills between Huntsville and Stevenson put to work supplying lumber for pontoons and a bridge floor, but this too was an occasion for guerilla interference, causing the workers to run away for fear of being murdered on the job or in their beds.
All in all, the prospect was grim. Buell’s chief solace was the knowledge that he was doing the best he could with what he had, and his chief hope was that his industry was appreciated by those above him. The latter was dispelled by an alarming and discouraging message from Halleck, July 8. The alarm came first: Bragg’s army was reported to be in motion, either against Grant at Memphis or Corinth, or against Buell at Tuscumbia or Chattanooga. “A few days more may reduce these doubts to a certainty, when our troops will operate accordingly,” Halleck reported, unruffled. Then came the discouragement: “The President telegraphs that your progress is not satisfactory and that you should move more rapidly. The long time taken by you to reach Chattanooga will enable the enemy to anticipate you by concentrating a large force to meet you. I communicate his views, hoping that your movements hereafter may be so rapid as to remove all cause of complaint, whether well founded or not.”
Buell later declared, “I was so astonished at the message that I made no reply until three days afterward.” What jogged him then was a six-word dispatch: “I want to hear from you. H. W. Halleck.” In reply, Buell reviewed his difficulties, remarking as he did so: “I regret that it is necessary to explain the circumstances which must make my progress seem so slow.” As he saw it, the object was not only to reach his goal quickly, but also to be in condition to fight when he got there. “The advance on Chattanooga must be made with the means of acting in force; otherwise it will either fail”—as Mitchel’s had done—or else the city would “prove a profitless and transient prize.” His arrangements, made in accordance with this, were “being pushed forward as rapidly as possible,” and though he quite understood that “these are matters of fact that cannot be gratifying,” he added: “The dissatisfaction of the President pains me exceedingly.”
Next day Halleck responded with assurances of personal good will. He could see both sides of the question, and he urged Buell to be more tolerant of the amateurs above them. “I can well understand the difficulties you have to encounter and also the impatience at Washington. In the first place they have no conception of the length of our lines of defense and of operations. In the second place the disasters before Richmond have worked them up to boiling heat.” At any rate, he assured him, “I will see that your movements are properly explained to the President.”
This was helpful in relieving the pain—lately added to by John Morgan, who had led his gray raiders up through Middle Tennessee and was capturing railroad guards, burning bridges, and smashing culverts in Kentucky—but still more comforting to Buell was the fact that his advance was now past Stevenson, where the Nashville & Chattanooga, coming down through Murfreesboro and Tullahoma, joined the Memphis & Charleston, thus affording him an additional rail supply line. Anticipating this, he had work gangs all along the road, repairing the damage done by retreating Confederates, and to make certain that it was not wrecked again, either by raiders or guerillas, he had stationed a brigade at Murfreesboro—two regiments of infantry, a cavalry detachment, and a four-gun battery—ready to move out in either direction at the first sign of trouble. On June 12, the date of Halleck’s sympathetic message, Buell was informed that the repairs had been completed. The first trainload of supplies would leave Nashville tomorrow or the next days he would be able to take his soldiers off half rations and replace their worn-out shoes as soon as it got there.
What got there tomorrow, however, was not a trainload of supplies, but rather an announcement of disaster. In the gray dawn light, Bedford Forrest struck Murfreesboro with three regiments of cavalry, wrecking the railroad at that point and capturing the Federal commander, Brigadier General T. T. Crittenden, together with all his men, guns, and equipment. Stung, Buell reacted fast by hurrying William Nelson’s whole division to the scene; but when it got there, the hard-riding Confederate and his captives had disappeared eastward, in the direction of the mountains. Nor was that all. The work gangs had barely completed their repairs when, eight days later, Forrest struck again—this time up near Nashville, where he celebrated the anniversary of Manassas by firing his captured guns within sight of the capitol tower and wrecking the three bridges across Mill Creek. When Nelson’s division marched from Murfreesboro to intercept him, he took a side road, camped for the night within earshot of the bluecoats tramping northward on the pike, then once more made his escape into the mountains beyond McMinnville.
Nettled but not disheartened, Buell put his repair gangs back to work. Within a week, practice having increased their skill, they had the line in operation. July 29, the first train pulled into Stevenson from Nashville with 210,000 rations, followed next day by another with a comparable amount. The troops went back on full allowances of food, and Nelson’s infantry replaced the shoes they had worn out chasing Forrest’s cavalry. This was a help and was duly appreciated; but something more than footgear had been damaged in the process, and there were pains in other regions than the stomach. Morale and pride were involved here, too. Buell’s men began to consider that, with the doubtful exception of Shiloh—which was not really their fight, since they only arrived on the second day and even then were only engaged in part—the Army of the Ohio was the only major Federal command that had never fought a pitched battle on its own. The blame for this, as they saw it, rested with Buell, whose military policy was referred to by one of his colonels as that of a dancing master: “By your leave, my dear sir, we will have a fight; that is, if you are sufficiently fortified. No hurry; take your time.”
Distasteful as this was to the men, there was something else about their commander that irked them even more. When Ormsby Mitchel’s division came through this region, back in May, one soldier wrote happily in his diary: “Our boys find Alabama hams better than Uncle Sam’s side meat, and fresh bread better than hard crackers.” Buell, on the other hand, not only put them on half rations, but issued and enforced stern orders against foraging, which he believed would discourage southern civilians from returning to their old allegiance. However true this was or wasn’t, it seemed to the men that he was less concerned with their hunger pangs than he was with the comfort and welfare of the rebels, who after all were to blame for their being down here in the first place. Also, he was denying them the fun and profit enjoyed by comrades who had come this way before them. For example, in reprisal for guerilla activities, one of Mitchel’s brigade commanders, Colonel John Basil Turchin—formerly Ivan Vasilevich Turchininov, of the Imperial Russian Army—had turned the town of Athens over to his three regiments, saying, “I shut mine eyes for one hour”: whereupon the Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana boys took it completely apart, Cossack-style, raping Negro servant girls and stuffing their pockets and haversacks with $50,000 worth of watches, plate, and jewelry. Grudgingly, Buell’s men complained that he would never turn them loose like that, despite the fact that, officially, it would apparently do his career far more good than harm. Turchin was court-martialed and dismissed for the Athens debauch, but before the summer was over he was reinstated and promoted to brigadier. Likewise Mitchel, though he was called to Washington in early July to explain illegal cotton transactions made in his department, was promoted to major general and transferred to the mild, sea-scented atmosphere of coastal South Carolina, where unfortunately he died of yellow fever in October.
Actually, though, the trouble with Buell lay deeper. It was not so much what he did as what he was. Other generals shared his views on the subject of foraging, and enforced them quite as sternly: notably McClellan and, at the present stage of the conflict, Sherman. “This demoralizing and disgraceful practice of pillage must cease,” the West Tennessee commander admonished his troops in a general order, “else the country will rise on us and justly shoot us down like dogs or wild beasts.” In fact, on the face of it, both were harder on offenders than Buell ever was or tried to be. In Sherman’s command, for example, the punishment for molesting civilians or stealing was confinement on bread and water, and he sent out patrols with instructions to shoot if foragers tried to escape arrest. But they gave their men something instead. Better situated, they fed better, and they moved among their soldiers in a way that made the individual feel that, outside battle, his comfort and well-being were his general’s main concern. Above all, in their different ways, they had a flair for the dramatic. McClellan’s men would turn from their first hot meal in days for a chance to cheer him riding past, and Sherman could make a soldier proud for weeks by asking him for a light for his cigar. It was personal, a matter of personality.
Buell was seldom “personal,” and never at all in public. In private, he had a parlor trick which he sometimes performed to amaze his guests with the strength of his rather stubby arms and his stocky, close-knit torso. Grasping his hundred-and-forty-pound wife by the waist, he would lift her straight out before him, hold her there with her feet dangling clear of the carpet, then perch her deftly on the mantelpiece. It was a good trick, and it won him the admiration of those who watched him do it. But the soldiers never saw this side of his nature. He was a headquarters general, anyhow. They saw him only briefly as he made his hurried, sour-mouthed inspections, peering at them with his beady eyes and poking his hawk-beak nose into unexpected corners. The good he took for granted; it was the less-good he was looking for, and he seldom failed to find it. As a result, there was an absence of warmth—and an absence, too, of incidents in which men let their food grow cold while they took time out to cheer him riding by or fished in their pockets for a light for his cigar. They were well drilled, beyond question. Three months ago, their professional tone had been such that when Grant’s skulkers saw them march ashore at Shiloh they had cried, “Here come the regulars!” Under fire next day, their confident demeanor as they rolled the rebels back had sustained the basic accuracy of this mistake. Since then, however, a great deal had happened, and all of it bad. The inchworm advance on Corinth, with empty earthworks at the end, had been followed by these two belt-tightening months in North Alabama, where they observed with disgust—as if, by a process of unnatural reversion, a butterfly were to have its wings refolded and be stuffed unceremoniously back into its cocoon—their transformation from happy-go-lucky soldiers into ill-fed railroad workers. Out of this had come a loss of former gladness, and a suspicion that they had lost their fighting edge.
This might or might not be the case, but at any rate the signs had been increasing that a test was about to come. Bragg was not only on the move: both Grant and Rosecrans reported him moving eastward, in the direction of Chattanooga. Before Halleck left for Washington in mid-July he released Thomas to Buell’s control, bringing his total strength to 46,000, exclusive of the force at Cumberland Gap. Of these, however, 15,000 were needed for guarding Nashville and the railroads, which left him no more than 31,000 for a forward move. For two weeks the advance had been stalled by the lack of a bridge across the Tennessee at Bridgeport; lumber for the pontoons had been cut by now, but there was still a shortage of nails, oakum, and pitch. While waiting for them, Buell was doing his best to build up a forward supply depot from which to feed and equip his men when they crossed the river to close in on the city. He was still at it on the last day of July, when a message reached his Huntsville headquarters from the commander of his advance division, reporting that Bragg himself had arrived in Chattanooga two days ago—apparently in advance of his whole army. “On the same evening two trains came in with soldiers. Railroad agent says he has orders to furnish cars for 30,000 as fast as he can.”
Informed of this, Halleck replied that Grant would furnish reinforcements “if you should find the enemy too strong.” Six days later, learning that Bragg’s troops had not yet come up, he prodded Buell again: “There is great dissatisfaction here [in Washington] at the slow movement of your army toward Chattanooga. It is feared that the enemy will have time to concentrate his entire army against you.” Buell wired back: “It is difficult to satisfy impatience, and when it proceeds from anxiety, as I know it does in this case, I am not disposed to complain of it. My advance has not been rapid, but it could not be more rapid under the circumstances. I know I have not been idle nor indifferent.” Next day, August 7, he got down to specifics. The Confederate force in East Tennessee was estimated at 60,000 men, he said; “yet I am prepared to find the reports much more exaggerated than I have supposed, and shall march upon Chattanooga at the earliest possible day, unless I ascertain certainly that the enemy’s strength renders it imprudent. If, on the other hand, he should cross the river I shall attack him, and I do not doubt that we shall defeat him.” Encouraged, Halleck replied that Grant had been ordered to transfer two divisions to the Army of the Ohio if they were needed; but he cautioned Buell, “Do not ask for them if you can avoid it with safety.”
With that, the roof fell in: quite literally. John Morgan had left Kentucky in late July, but now he suddenly reappeared in Middle Tennesee. On August 12 he captured the guard at Gallatin, above Nashville, and wrecked the L & N Railroad by pushing blazing boxcars into the 800-foot tunnel, seven miles north of there, so that the timbers burned and let the dirt cave in. Unplugging it would be a long-term if not an impossible job, and with the Cumberland River too low for shipping, Buell was cut off from his main supply base at Louisville: which meant that his army would have to eat up the rations collected at Stevenson for the intended drive on Chattanooga. Learning next that a Confederate force estimated at 15,000 men had left Knoxville, bound for Nashville and other points in his rear, he called for the two divisions from Grant and on the 16th detached William Nelson to go to Kentucky with a cadre of experienced officers “to organize such troops as could be got together there to reëstablish our communications and operate against Morgan’s incursions.” Nor was that all; for the pressure came from various directions, including Washington. Two days later, when Halleck threatened to fire him if he did not speed up his operations—“So great is the dissatisfaction here at the apparent want of energy and activity in your district, that I was this morning notified to have you removed. I got the matter delayed till we could hear further of your movements”—Buell replied forthrightly: “I beg that you will not interpose on my behalf. On the contrary, if the dissatisfaction cannot cease on grounds which I think might be supposed if not apparent, I respectfully request that I may be relieved. My position is far too important to be occupied by any officer on sufferance. I have no desire to stand in the way of what may be deemed necessary for the public good.”
Either he was past caring or else he recognized a bluff when he saw one. At any rate, whatever satisfaction this gave him, he had only a short time to enjoy it. Next morning, August 19, he learned that Bragg’s army was crossing the river in force at Chattanooga. This was the eventuality in which he had said, “I shall attack him”; but now that he was faced with the actual thing, it began to seem to him that his first responsibility was the protection of Nashville, lying exposed in his rear. Accordingly, he shifted his headquarters to Decherd, forty miles northeast on the railroad leading back to the capital. Four days later—by which time Bragg was reported to have crossed the Tennessee with fifty regiments, “well armed and [with] good artillery”—he had made up his mind. Orders went to the commanders of the two divisions on their way from Grant; they were to change direction and “move by forced marches on Nashville.” Simultaneously, the officer in charge of the advance depot at Stevenson was told to “expedite the shipment of stores … in every possible way, and be ready to evacuate the place at a moment’s notice.” The work of nailing and caulking the floats for the 1400-yard-long span at Bridgeport had been completed two weeks before, and this too was remembered: “Let engineers quietly prepare the pontoons for burning, and when you leave destroy everything that cannot be brought away.”
Presently, like the campaign itself, the unused bridge went up in smoke. “Don Carlos won’t do; he won’t do,” one division commander muttered when he received the order to retire. Others protested likewise, but to no avail. Before the end of August the withdrawal was complete, and the Decherd provost marshal, describing himself as “weak, discouraged, and worn out,” recorded in his diary: “The whole army is concentrated here, or near here; but nobody knows anything, except that the water is bad, whiskey scarce, dust abundant, and the air loaded with the scent and melody of a thousand mules.”
Having accomplished Buell’s repulse without the firing of a shot on either side—except in his rear, when Forrest and Morgan were on the rampage—Bragg now turned his mind to larger prospects, involving nothing less than the upset and reversal of the entire military situation in the enormous theater lying between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Gulf of Mexico.
The actual movement which placed him in a position to accomplish this design had been undertaken as the result of a decision reached on the spur of a moment in late July: specifically, the anniversary of Manassas. Before that, he had spent a month reorganizing and refitting the army he inherited when Beauregard left Tupelo for what he thought would be a ten-day convalescence. It had been no easy job. After the long retreat, the troops were badly in need of almost everything, including rest. What they needed most, however, was discipline; or so Bragg told “the brave men of Shiloh and of Elkhorn” in an address issued on June 27, the date of his official appointment to command the Army of the Mississippi.
“I enter hopefully on my duties,” he declared. “But, soldiers, to secure the legitimate results of all your heavy sacrifices which have brought this army together, to infuse that unity and cohesion essential for a resolute resistance to the wicked invasion of our country, and to give to serried ranks force, impetus, and direction for driving the invader beyond our borders, be assured discipline at all times and obedience to the orders of your officers on all points, as a sacred duty, an act of patriotism, is an absolute necessity.” Great events were impending. “A few more days of needful preparation and organization and I shall give your banners to the breeze … with the confident trust that you will gain additional honors to those you have already won on other fields.” After much that was turgid, he ended grimly: “But be prepared to undergo privation and labor with cheerfulness and alacrity.”
Cheerfulness was by no means a primary characteristic of this sixth among the Confederacy’s full generals; dyspepsia and migraine had made him short-tempered and disputatious all his life. In the old army there was a story that in his younger days, as a lieutenant commanding one of several companies at a post where he was also serving as quartermaster, he had submitted a requisition for supplies, then as quartermaster had declined by indorsement to fill it. As company commander he resubmitted the requisition, giving additional reasons for his needs, but as quartermaster he persisted in denial. Having reached this impasse, he referred the matter to the post commandant, who took one look at the correspondence and threw up his hands: “My God, Mr Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!” Other stories were less humorous: as for instance that one of his soldiers had attempted to assassinate him not long after the Mexican War by exploding a 12-pound shell under his cot. When the smoke cleared away, the cot was reduced to tatters and kindling, but Bragg himself emerged without a scratch.
He had left the army in 1856 for a civilian career, not in his native North Carolina but as a sugar planter and commissioner of swamp lands in Louisiana. With the coming of the present war—which he believed had been brought on by such ill-advised political measures as the extension of “universal suffrage”—he had sustained his former reputation as a disciplinarian and a fighter by whipping his Gulf Coast command rapidly into a state of efficiency and leading it aggressively at Shiloh. There, he said in his report immediately afterwards, the army had been given “a valuable lesson, by which we should profit—never on a battlefield to lose a moment’s time, but leaving the killed, wounded, and spoils to those whose special business it is to care for them, to press on with every available man, giving a panic-stricken and retreating foe no time to rally, and reaping all the benefits of success never complete until every enemy is killed, wounded, or captured.”
He was now in a position, with the approval of the authorities in Richmond, to give this precept large-scale application. After informing him on June 29 that his department had been “extended so as to embrace that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi, the entire states of Mississippi and Alabama, and the portion of Georgia and Florida west of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers,” Secretary Randolph not only authorized an offensive, but urged him to “Strike the moment an opportunity offers.” That was what Bragg had already told his soldiers he intended to do, as soon as he had completed the reorganization-in-progress. However, this was attended by many difficulties. One problem, beyond the need for restoring (or, Bragg would say, injecting) discipline, was the army’s health. The troops had brought their Corinth ailments with them; including the men from the Transmississippi, the July 1 “aggregate present” of 61,561 was reduced to 45,393 by deduction of those who were sick or in arrest or on extra duty. Healthier conditions at Tupelo, plus the absence of strain—the nearest bluecoat was two days off—would restore a good part of these 16,000 soldiers to the ranks. More serious, as Bragg saw it, was the shortage of competent high-ranking officers. Van Dorn was gone, transferred to Vicksburg in mid-June when Davis and Farragut threatened the city from above and below; Breckinridge went with him, taking 6000 troops to oppose a landing by the men from Butler, and Hindman was detached at the same time to raise an army in Arkansas. Polk having been relieved of his corps and named second in command of the whole, Hardee and Price were the only experienced major generals left in direct charge of troops. The rest, Bragg told Richmond, including most of the brigadiers in the sweeping indictment, were “in my judgment unsuited for their responsible positions”; were, in fact, “only incumbrances, and would be better out of the way.”
Despite these shortcomings—and despite the fact that the War Department increased his difficulties by not allowing him to consolidate under-strength regiments bled white at Shiloh, then further reduced to skeletons by pestilence at Corinth—he kept his army hard at work, convinced that this was the sovereign remedy for injured health as well as for injured discipline. In compensation for long hours of drill he issued new uniforms and better rations, both of which had an additional salutary effect. New problems were dealt with as they arose, including an upsurge of desertion. He met it harshly. “Almost every day we would hear a discharge of musketry, and knew that some poor trembling wretch had bid farewell to mortal things here below,” one soldier afterwards recalled. The effectiveness of such executions was increased, Bragg believed, by lining up the condemned man’s former comrades to watch him pay for his crime. It worked; desertion decreased; but at a price. “We were crushed,” the same observer added bitterly. “Bragg, so the soldiers thought, was the machine that did it.… He loved to crush the spirit of his men. The more of a hangdog look they had about them the better was General Bragg pleased. Not a single soldier in the whole army ever loved or respected him.”
True or false, all this was rather beside the point as far as Bragg was concerned. He was not out after love or respect; he was after results, and he got them. On July 12 he informed the Adjutant General that the time since his last report, forwarded to Richmond when he assumed official command two weeks before, “has been diligently applied to organization, discipline, and instruction, with a very marked improvement. The health and general tone of the troops, too, exhibits results no less gratifying. Our condition for service is good and has reached a culminating point under the defective skeleton organization.”
He was ready to strike. The question was, where? In what direction? Grant’s army, considerably larger than his own and occupying strong positions under Sherman and Rosecrans at Memphis and Corinth, seemed practically unassailable; besides which, Bragg told Richmond, “A long and disastrous drouth, threatening destruction to the grain crop, continues here and renders any move [into North Mississippi] impracticable for want of water.” As for Buell, his lateral advance had been so slow and apparently so uncertain that for a long time the Confederates had found it impossible to determine his objective. It might be Chattanooga—in that case, Bragg had already sent a 3000-man brigade of infantry to reinforce the troops in East Tennessee—or it might be Atlanta, depending on what direction he took after crossing the river at Bridgeport. Whichever it was, Bragg decided in mid-July to give him all the trouble he could by sending two brigades of cavalry, under Colonel Joseph Wheeler and Brigadier General Frank Armstrong, to harass his lines of supply and communication in West Tennessee and North Alabama.
They had excellent models for their work, commanders who had already given cavalry operations—and, indeed the war itself—a new dimension, based on their proof that sizeable bodies of hard-riding men could not only strike and create havoc deep in the enemy’s rear, Jeb Stuart-style, but could stay there to strike again and again, spreading the havoc over hundreds of miles and wearing out their would-be pursuers by causing them to converge repeatedly on thin air. By now the whole Confederate West was ringing with praise for Morgan and Forrest: particularly the former, whose exploits had surrounded him with the aura of a legend. A tall, white-faced, handsome, cold-eyed man, soft-spoken and always neatly dressed in conservative but obviously expensive clothes—fine gray broadcloth, fire-gilt buttons, richly polished boots, and spotless linen—he knew the effectiveness of reticence, yet he could be flamboyant on occasion. “Kentuckians!” he exhorted in a broadside struck off at Glasgow and distributed on his sweep through the Bluegrass, “I have come to liberate you from the hands of your oppressors.” Calling for volunteer recruits, “fifty thousand of Kentucky’s bravest sons,” and implying thereby that he would take only the bravest, he broke into verse:
“Strike—for your altars and your fires;
Strike for the green graves of your sires,
God, and your native land!”
He was seldom flamboyant, however, except for a purpose. For example, he carried with him a telegrapher, a wire-tap expert who, though he would sometimes chat waggishly with enemy operators—once he even went so far as to complain directly to Washington, in Morgan’s name, about the inferior grade of mules being furnished Buell’s army—not only intercepted messages that kept his chief informed of the Federal efforts to surround him, but also sent out false instructions that turned the converging blue columns off his trail. Such devices yielded profits. Leaving Knoxville on July 4 with fewer than 900 men, he made a thousand-mile swing through Middle Tennessee and Kentucky, in the course of which he captured seventeen towns, together with tons of Union supplies, paroled nearly 1200 regular army prisoners, and dispersed about 1500 home-guarders, all at a cost of less than 90 casualties, and returned before the end of the month with an additional 300 volunteers picked up along the way. Two weeks later he was back again. Lest it be thought that he was merely a hit-and-run sort of soldier, after wrecking the Gallatin tunnel he turned on his pursuer—Brigadier General R. W. Johnson, a West Pointer and fellow-Kentuckian, whom Buell had assigned the task of intercepting the raiders with an equal force—and whipped him soundly, breaking up his command and capturing the general and his staff.
Forrest was a different sort of man; different in method, that is, if not in results. Recuperating in Memphis from his Fallen Timbers wound—the ball had lodged against his spine and was removed in the field a week later, without the benefit of an anesthetic—he put a recruiting notice in the local paper, calling for “able-bodied men … with good horse and gun. I wish none but those who desire to be actively engaged.… Come on, boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.” When he returned to Corinth, shortly before the evacuation, Beauregard sent him to Chattanooga with orders to weld the scattered East Tennessee cavalry units into a brigade. He arrived in late June, assembled his men, and, believing active duty the best possible training for a green command, crossed the Tennessee River on July 9 to camp the following night atop Cumberland Mountain, deep in enemy territory. At dawn Sunday, three mornings later and ninety roundabout miles away, civilian hostages held in the Murfreesboro jail—several were under sentence of death, in retaliation for the bushwhacking of Union soldiers on or near their farms—heard what one of them later called “a Strange noise like the roar of an approaching storm.” It was hoofbeats: Forrest’s 1400 troopers were pounding up the turnpike. Two regiments of infantry, one from Michigan, one from Minnesota, each with a section of artillery and cavalry support—their combined strength was about the same as Forrest’s, except that he had no guns—were camped on opposite sides of town, with detachments guarding the jail and the courthouse, in which the brigade supplies were stored. Quickly the town was taken, along with the Federal commanding general, and fire-fights broke out on the outskirts, where the blue infantry prepared to defend its camps. Once the hostages had been freed and the captured goods packed for removal along with the prisoners already taken, some of the raiders, believing the alarm had spread to other Union garrisons by now, suggested withdrawal. But Forrest would have none of that. “I didn’t come here to make half a job of it,” he said, influenced perhaps by the fact that today was his forty-first birthday; “I’m going to have them all.”
He got them, too—though he hastened matters somewhat by sending notes to the two commanders in their barricaded camps, demanding “unconditional surrender … or I will have every man put to the sword.” He added, by way of extenuation and persuasion: “This demand is made to prevent the effusion of blood,” and though like Morgan he was still a colonel, in his signature he promoted himself to “Brigadier General of Cavalry, C.S. Army,” doubtless to lend additional weight to the threat. It worked. The two blue colonels surrendered in sequence, and Forrest marched his 1200 prisoners back eastward to McMinnville, where he paroled them and forwarded the captured arms and supplies to Chattanooga—all but the guns; he kept them for use around Nashville the following week, where he gave Nelson the slip after re-wrecking Buell’s vital railroad supply line.
“I am happy to see that my two lieutenants, Morgan and Forrest, are doing such good service in Kentucky and Tennessee,” Beauregard wrote from Bladon Springs, where he was still in exile. “When I appointed them I thought they would leave their mark wherever they passed.” This was said in reply to a letter from Bragg, in which the present army commander told his former chief, “Our cavalry is paving the way for me in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky.” The letter was dated July 22. By that time Bragg had decided not only on Buell’s intentions, but also on his own. After a forty-day Federal head start, it was to be a race for Chattanooga: with further possibilities as the prize.
Kirby Smith, commanding in East Tennessee, had never had much doubt about Buell’s intentions from the outset. Promoted to major general after recovering from being shot through the neck at Manassas, Smith had been given the thorny job of restoring order in the area around Knoxville, and in this he had succeeded remarkably well, considering the extent to which the region was torn by conflicting loyalties and ambitions. But since the fall of Corinth the military situation had grown increasingly ominous; George Morgan occupied Cumberland Gap, an immediate threat to Knoxville itself, and Buell began his eastward advance in the direction of Chattanooga, while Smith himself had less than 15,000 of all arms with which to resist the two-pronged menace. The arrival of the 3000-man brigade from Bragg afforded some relief, but not for long. Learning from northern papers in mid-July that several of Grant’s divisions had been released to Buell, he protested to Davis in Richmond: “This brings an overwhelming force that cannot be resisted except by Bragg’s coöperation.” Four days later, July 19, he reported to the Adjutant General that “Buell with his whole force” had reached Stevenson, thirty miles from Chattanooga, which he was “daily expected to attack.” Fortunately, Smith added, Forrest had broken the Union supply line at Murfreesboro. “This may delay General Buell’s movement and give General Bragg time to move on Middle Tennessee. The safety of Chattanooga depends upon his coöperation.” Next day, not knowing of his opponent’s difficulties in procuring pitch and oakum, he made a telegraphic appeal to Bragg himself: “Buell has completed his preparations, is prepared to cross near Bridgeport, and his passage there may be hourly expected. General Morgan’s command moving on Knoxville from Cumberland Gap. Your coöperation is much needed. It is your time to strike at Middle Tennessee.”
Bragg’s reply, sent from Tupelo that same day, was not encouraging. “Confronted here by a largely superior force strongly intrenched” and threatened on the left by Curtis, who would “now be enabled to unite against us,” he found it “impossible … to do more than menace and harass the enemy from this quarter.” The land was parched; both armies, Grant’s and his own, were living out of wells; so that whichever ventured far from its base in search of the other would die of thirst. “The fact is we are fearfully outnumbered in this department, the enemy having at least two to our one in the field, with a comparatively short line upon which he may concentrate.” After this recital of obstacles and woes, he made it clear that Smith would have to shift for himself in East Tennessee, without the hope of further reinforcements.
Then overnight he changed his mind. Next day was the anniversary of Manassas, and he saluted it with a telegram as abruptly brief as the discharge of a starting-gun in the race which it announced:
Tupelo, Miss., July 21
President Jefferson Davis,
Will move immediately to Chattanooga in force and advance from there. Forward movement from here in force is not practicable. Will leave this line well defended.
Next day, in the midst of large-scale preparations for the shift—he was not waiting for specific governmental approval; “Strike the moment an opportunity offers,” he had been told three weeks ago—he expanded this somewhat in a second wire to Davis, who he knew must have been startled at being told, without preamble, that the army which was the mainstay of his native Mississippi was being removed forthwith: “Obstacles in front connected with danger to Chattanooga induce a change of base. Fully impressed with great importance of that line, am moving to East Tennessee. Produce rapid offensive from there following the consternation now being produced by our cavalry. Leave this State amply protected by Van Dorn at Vicksburg and Price here.”
In a letter to Beauregard that same day—the one in which he wrote, “Our cavalry is paving the way”—he gave a fuller explanation. “As I am changing entirely, under altered circumstances, the plan of operations here,” he told his former chief, “I submit to you what I propose and beg your candid criticism, and in view of the cordial and sincere relations we have ever maintained, I trust to your compliance.” With Smith “so weak as to give me great uneasiness for the safety of his line,” Bragg had had to choose between four alternatives: 1) to remain idle at Tupelo, 2) to attack Grant, 3) to move into Middle Tennessee by crossing the river in Buell’s rear and thus disrupt his and Grant’s supply lines, or 4) to attack Buell. Of these, the first was unthinkable; the second was impracticable, considering the drouth in North Mississippi and the strength of the fortifications at Memphis and Corinth; the third was unwise and overrisky, since it would invite both Grant and Buell to assault him simultaneously from opposite directions. Therefore he had chosen the fourth, which would not only provide for a combination with Smith, but would also afford possibilities for maneuver and mystification. “By throwing my cavalry forward toward Grand Junction and Tuscumbia”—this referred to Wheeler and Armstrong, who had left three days ago—“the impression is created that I am advancing on both places and [the Federals] are drawing in to meet me. The Memphis & Charleston road has been kept cut, so they have no use of it and have at length given it up. Before they can know my movement I shall be in front of Buell at Chattanooga, and by cutting off his transportation may have him in a tight place.… Thus you have my plan.”
As might have been expected—for, though it lacked the language, it had nearly the grandeur of one of the Creole’s own—Beauregard gave the plan his fervent approval. “Action, action, and action is what we require,” he replied, paraphrasing Danton’s “De l’audace, encore l’audace, et toujours de l’audace,” and added with a paternalistic glow: “I have no doubt that with anything like equal numbers you will meet with success.” By the time these encouraging words reached him, however, Bragg was far from Tupelo. He left on July 24, after notifying the Adjutant General: “Major General Van Dorn, with about 16,000 effectives, will hold the line of the Mississippi. Major General Price, with a similar force, will face the enemy on this frontier, and a sufficient garrison will be left for Mobile and the Gulf. With the balance of the forces, some 35,000 effectives, I hope, in conjunction with Major General Smith, to strike an effective blow through Middle Tennessee, gaining the enemy’s rear, cutting off his supplies and dividing his forces, so as to encounter him in detail. In any event much will be accomplished in simply preserving our line and preventing a descent into Georgia, than which no greater disaster could befall us.”
His confidence that he would win the race, despite the handicap of a six-week lag—not to mention the sobering example of the hare-and-tortoise fable—was based on an appreciation of railroads as a strategic factor in this war. (For one thing, by bringing Joe Johnston’s men down from the Valley, through Manassas Gap, to unload within earshot of the Union guns, they had won the battle whose anniversary had now come round.) Ever since his assumption of command Bragg had kept busy, doing not only all he could to wreck Buell’s rail facilities, but also all he could to improve his own, especially in urging the completion of a line connecting Meridian and Selma. In the former effort, by grace of Morgan and Forrest, he had been successful, but in the latter he had failed; the Confederacy, it appeared, could afford neither the effort nor the iron. Consequently, with the Memphis & Charleston wrecked and in Federal hands, the only rail connection between Tupelo and Chattanooga was a roundabout, far-south route through Mobile and Atlanta, involving a journey of 776 miles over no less than half a dozen separate railroads, with through trains prohibited by the water gap across Mobile Bay and the narrow gauge of the Montgomery & West Point road. Nevertheless, the sending of the 3000-man brigade to Smith in late June, as a trial run over this route, had opened Bragg’s eyes to the possibilities it afforded for a rapid, large-scale movement. The troops had left Tupelo on June 27, and despite congestion all along the line—conflicting orders from Richmond had put other units simultaneously on the rails—reached Chattanooga on July 3, within a week of the day the movement order had been issued.
Now he was out to repeat or better the performance with ten times as many soldiers, the “effective total” of his four divisions being 31,638 of all arms. Horse-drawn elements, including engineers and wagon trains, as well as cavalry and artillery, would move overland—due east to Rome, then north—but the bulk of the command would go by rail, dispatched from Tupelo a division at a time. For this, though they were made on quite short notice, the preparations were extensive, with the emphasis on discipline, as was always the case when Bragg was in charge. Each man was to be handed seven days’ cooked rations as he stepped aboard, thus forestalling any excuse for foraging en route, and unit commanders were cautioned to be especially vigilant at junction points to prevent the more adventurous from disrupting the schedule by stealing away for a visit to the fleshpots. The first division left on July 23, the second and third immediately thereafter, and the fourth on July 29: by which time the units forwarded from Mobile and other scattered points to clear the line had been in Chattanooga for two full days. They were followed by a week-long procession of jam-packed cars whose engines came puffing around Missionary Ridge and into the city.
In all the bustle and hurry of preparation and departure, and in spite of the number of wires and letters flying back and forth, Bragg had neglected to mention his sudden volte-face to the one person most immediately concerned: Kirby Smith. While changing trains in Montgomery, however, he was handed an intercepted letter the East Tennessee commander had sent from Knoxville on the 24th—the day Bragg left Tupelo—proposing, with what amounted to clairvoyance if not downright telepathy, the very movement now in progress: “Buell’s movements and preparations indicate a speedy attack.… Can you not leave a portion of your forces in observation in Mississippi, and, shifting the main body to this department, take command in person? There is yet time for a brilliant summer campaign; you will have a good and secure base, abundant supplies, the Tennessee can be crossed at any point by the aid of steam and ferry boats, and the campaign opened with every prospect of regaining possession of Middle Tennessee and possibly Kentucky.” He added: “I will not only coöperate with you, but will cheerfully place my command under you subject to your orders.”
With this in his pocket, a happy omen as well as an affirmation of his strategic judgment, Bragg continued his journey and reached Chattanooga early on the morning of July 30. Informed of his arrival, Smith came down from Knoxville the following day to confer with him on what Bragg called “measures for material support and effective coöperation.” Smith had two divisions, one in front of Cumberland Gap, observing the Federals who occupied that point, the other at Chattanooga; their strength was about 9,000 men each, including the brigade that had arrived four weeks ago to thicken the ranks of the slim force confronting Buell. Bragg was reorganizing his still-arriving army into two “wings,” one under Polk, the other under Hardee, each with two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade; their combined strength was 34,000, including the units forwarded in driblets from points along the railroad. His problem was how best to employ these 52,000 men—his and Smith’s—against the larger but badly scattered Federal forces to his front and on his flank.
The solution, as communicated to the Adjutant General on August 1, was for Smith to “move at once against General Morgan in front of Cumberland Gap,” while Bragg was collecting supplies and awaiting the arrival of his artillery and trains for an advance from Chattanooga. This would require ten days or two weeks, he said. At the end of that time, if Smith had been successful against Morgan, both armies would then combine for a march “into Middle Tennessee with the fairest prospect of cutting off General Buell, should that commander continue in his present position. Should he be reinforced from the west side of the Tennessee River, so as to cope with us, then Van Dorn and Price can strike and clear West Tennessee of any force that can be left to hold it.” Furthermore, once Grant and Buell had been disposed of, either by destruction or by being maneuvered into retreat, he considered the time propitious for an invasion of the region to the north. “The feeling in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky is represented by Forrest and Morgan to have become intensely hostile to the enemy, and nothing is wanted but arms and support to bring the people into our ranks, for they have found that neutrality has afforded them no protection.”
Returning to Knoxville much encouraged by these developments, Smith informed his wife that he had found his new partner “a grim old fellow” (he himself was thirty-eight; Bragg was forty-five) “but a true soldier.” Presently he was further gladdened by the arrival of two brigades detached by Bragg to reinforce him for the offensive, one from Polk and one from Hardee, and being thus strengthened on the eve of his advance he began to see larger prospects looming out beyond the horizon—prospects based in part on a dispatch from John Morgan, who had reported from northern Kentucky in mid-July: “I am here with a force sufficient to hold all the country outside of Lexington and Frankfort. These places are garrisoned chiefly with Home Guards. The bridges between Cincinnati and Lexington have been destroyed. The whole country can be secured, and 25,000 or 30,000 men will join you at once. I have taken eleven cities and towns with very heavy army stores.” If one small brigade of cavalry could accomplish all this, Smith reasoned, what might a whole army do? Accordingly, on August 9 he wrote to Bragg that he “understood” the Federals intrenched at Cumberland Gap had “nearly a month’s supply of provisions. If this be true the reduction of the place would be a matter of more time than I presume you are willing I should take. As my move direct to Lexington, Ky. would effectually invest [the Gap] and would be attended with other most brilliant results in my judgment, I suggest my being allowed to take that course, if I find the speedy reduction of the Gap an impractical thing.”
Bragg too was nurturing hopes in that direction, though not without reservations. He replied next day: “It will be a week yet before I can commence crossing the river, and information I hope to receive will determine which route I shall take, to Nashville or Lexington. My inclination is now for the latter.” All the same, Smith’s plan to by-pass Cumberland Gap and head straight for North Central Kentucky was more than his partner had bargained for, even though Smith reinforced his proposal by inclosing a letter from John Morgan’s lieutenant-colonel, stressing the opinion that flocks of eager volunteers were waiting to double the size of his army as soon as it reached the Bluegrass. Strategically, Bragg approved, but tactically he urged caution: “It would be unadvisable, I think, for you to move far into Kentucky, leaving [George] Morgan in your rear, until I am able to fully engage Buell and his forces on your left. But I do not credit the amount of Morgan’s supplies [at Cumberland Gap] and have confidence in his timidity. When once well on the way to his rear you might safely leave but 5000 to his front, and by a flank movement draw the rest to your assistance. He will never advance to escape.”
Smith’s ebullience was contagious: as was shown in the final sentence of Bragg’s letter. “Van Dorn and Price will advance simultaneously with us from Mississippi on West Tennessee, and I trust we may all unite in Ohio.”
Just now, however, Van Dorn was looking south, not north; he had New Orleans on his mind, not Ohio. The grim determination he had brought to embattled Vicksburg in late June—“Let it be borne in mind by all that the army here is defending the place against occupation. This will be done at all hazards, even though this beautiful and devoted city should be laid in ruin and ashes”—gave way to elation in mid-July when the Arkansas made her run through the Yankee sloops and gunboats. “Glorious for the navy, and glorious for her heroic commander, officers, and men,” he wired Davis. The iron ram changed everything. “Smokestack riddled; otherwise not materially damaged,” he exulted. “Soon be repaired and then, Ho! for New Orleans.” Both enemy fleets were still on hand, and across the way the bluecoats were still digging their canal; but Van Dorn no longer saw them as much of a threat. A week later, after two all-out attempts to sink the Arkansas under the tall red bluff, he pronounced “the failure so complete that it was almost ridiculous.” The same went for the engineering project. “Nothing can be accomplished by the enemy,” he told Richmond, “unless they bring overwhelming number of troops. This must be anticipated.”
His favorite method of anticipation, now as always, was to seize the offensive; to snatch the ball from his opponent and start running. That was what he had done, or tried to do, in Arkansas back in the early spring, and that was what he decided to do now in his native Mississippi in midsummer. When Davis and Farragut gave up the game, turned their backs on each other and went their separate ways—the former to Helena, the latter to New Orleans after dropping the infantry off at Baton Rouge—Van Dorn ordered Breckinridge to pursue southward with 4000 men and knock the bluecoats off balance in the Louisiana capital before they could get set for a return. If possible, he was to take the city: after which, as Van Dorn saw it, would come much else. Five months ago the byword had been “St Louis, then huzza!” Now it was “Ho! for New Orleans.”
Breckinridge wasted no time in getting started. On July 27, the day after the Yankee fleets took off in opposite directions, he put his troops aboard railroad cars and proceeded by way of Jackson to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, where they detrained the following afternoon to prepare for the overland advance on Baton Rouge, sixty miles to the west. On the 30th the march began, but was halted the following morning when reports came in “that the effective force of the enemy was not less than 5000 and that the ground was commanded by three gunboats lying in the river.” Down to 3400 men as a result of sickness, Breckinridge wired Van Dorn that he would nonetheless “undertake to capture the garrison if the Arkansas could be sent down to clear the river or divert the fire of the gunboats.” Promptly the reply came back: The ram would be in front of Baton Rouge at dawn, August 5. Breckinridge made his plans accordingly.
Isaac Brown was not in Vicksburg at the time, having left his shipmates “to sustain without me the lassitude of inaction” while he took a four-day leave in Grenada. If rest and relaxation were what he was after (which was probable; he had had precious little of either in the past two months) he was disappointed in more ways than one. For one thing, he had no sooner arrived than he was taken violently ill and put to bed. For another, while he was in this condition, supposedly unable to lift his head off the pillow, he received a wire from his first lieutenant, informing him that the Arkansas was under orders to proceed at once to Baton Rouge, despite the fact that her engines were under major repair and much of her rusty plating had still not been refastened to her battered sides. Brown replied with “a positive order to remain at Vicksburg until I could join him,” and had himself carried to the depot, where he boarded the first southbound train. Collapsed on some mail bags, too weak to sit up or even change his position, he rode the 130 miles toJackson, where he applied for a special train to take him the rest of the way, only to learn that the Arkansas had already gone downriver.
She cast off Sunday evening, August 3, barely thirty hours before she was due at her Tuesday-morning rendezvous with Breckinridge, 300 winding miles below. This called for her best speed: with the result that there were stoppages from overstrain all along the way, each requiring additional make-up speed thereafter, which produced more frequent breakdowns. Caught up in this vicious cycle, her engines had become so cranky by the time she reached the mouth of the Red, 200 miles out of Vicksburg, that her substitute skipper, Lieutenant Henry Stevens, called a council of war to decide whether to continue or turn back. The decision was to press on. At daybreak, August 5, approaching the final bend above Baton Rouge, the crew heard the boom of guns, which told that the land attack was under way. The Arkansas herself appeared to sense this; or, as one of her officers put it, “Like a war horse she seemed to scent the battle from afar, and in point of speed outdid anything we had ever before witnessed.” Then, just before rounding the bend, they heard a familiar sound: the crack and jar of naval guns mixed in with the bark of field artillery. The ironclad Essex and the two Farragut gunboats were adding the weight of their metal to the attempt to fling back the Confederate attackers. Urged on by the knowledge “that our iron sides should be receiving those missiles which now were mowing down our ranks of infantry,” Stevens decided to make an immediate ram attack on the Essex, sinking her where she lay, then steam below the city to cut off the retreat of the two wooden gunboats, reducing them to kindling at his leisure. Such was his intention: whereupon the starboard engine suddenly quit, and before the helmsman could port her wheel, the ram ran hard aground. The engineers got to work at once with files and chisels, trying to coax the balky engine into motion, but it would obviously be some hours before they could succeed. Meanwhile, the land attack continued. “There lay the enemy in plain view,” one of the Arkansas lieutenants afterwards wrote, still mortified years later, “and we as helpless as a shear-hulk.”
Breckinridge had marched to within ten miles of the place the night before in order to launch his assault on schedule, although by now he was down to 2600 effectives as a result of sickness brought on by the heat and an irregular diet, the rail movement having been made in such haste that commissary supplies and cooking utensils were left behind. “The day before the battle we had nothing to eat but roasting ears,” one Kentucky infantryman afterwards recalled, “and these we ate raw because we had not time to stop long enough to roast them. Our command, with the horses, consumed forty acres of green corn one evening; for we stopped only long enough to gather the corn and feed the horses, [and] we then moved forward to take position to make the attack at daylight.” His brigade, which had left Vicksburg with 1800 men, was reduced to 580 within two weeks. “Such were the ravages of sickness, exposure, and battle,” he declared.
Of these, the last were the least as the thing turned out, in spite of the fact that they found the enemy waiting to receive them. The Federal commander, Thomas Williams, had formed his line closer to the town than some of his regimental camps, contracting it thus because he was down to about the same effective strength as the attackers: not because of exposure or bad food, but because so many of his men had still not recovered from lowland ailments encountered while plying their shovels opposite Vicksburg. However, he had the advantage in artillery, eighteen pieces to eleven, besides the tremendous added power of the gunboats, plowing the ranks of the charging rebels by arching their big projectiles over the capital, where a naval observer directed their fire by signals from the tower of the statehouse. In the face of this, Breckinridge scored considerable early success, forcing the bluecoats back through the suburbs on the right and capturing two guns; but the warships, unopposed by the missing Arkansas, more than tipped the balance. By 10 o’clock, having lost the commanders of one of his two divisions and three of his four brigades, he halted to adjust his line. Williams, observing this, ordered a charge to recover what had been yielded, but then was killed by a bullet through his chest—the first Union general to fall in battle since Nathaniel Lyon died much the same way at Wilson’s Creek, a year ago next week. Breckinridge held his ground until late afternoon, hoping to renew the attack as soon as the Arkansas arrived. When he learned that the ram was lying helpless four miles above town, he left a small force in observation and pulled the main body back to the Comite River, from which he had marched the night before. The Federals did not follow.
Aboard the grounded ram, the engineers were still at work with their files and chisels. Stevens got her afloat by throwing off some railroad iron lying loose on her deck, and by dusk the black gang had her engines back in operation. She started down the four-mile reach, where the Union boats were standing guard, but had gone no more than a hundred yards when the crankpin in the rocking shaft of the starboard engine snapped. A forge was set up on the gundeck, and one of the engineers, a former blacksmith, hammered out a new one. By the time it was finished, dawn was glimmering through and the lookout spotted the Essex coming upstream, making a scant two knots against the current. Hurriedly, the new pin was installed; the rust-red Arkansas stood out for battle. Stevens intended to make a short run upstream, then turn and launch a ram attack with the added momentum. Before he could start back, however, the port engine suddenly quit and spun the vessel once more into bank. The Essex was coming slowly on, firing as she came, and theArkansas was hard aground, able to bring only one of her guns to bear. The situation spoke for itself. Stevens ordered the crew ashore and fired the vessel, tears streaming down his face as he did so. When the flames reached the gundeck, the loaded guns began to explode: so that the Arkansas not only kept the Essex at a respectful distance during her death throes, but administered her own coup de grâce and fired her own salute as she went down. Thus she made a fitting end to her twenty-three-day career.
Brown almost got there in time to see it. Cured of his fever by the news that his ram had gone downriver without him, he got back onto the southbound train and rode to Ponchatoula, where he transferred to horseback and struck out westward for the river, in hope that he could hail the Arkansas from bank and somehow manage to board her or at any rate be near enough to watch and cheer her as she fought What he saw instead were exultant Union gunboats steaming back and forth across the muddy water where she had exploded and sunk with her colors flying. Sadly—though he was proud, he later wrote, that her deck “had never been pressed by the foot of an enemy”—he rode back the way he had come and returned to Vicksburg.
Breckinridge shared the pride, but not the sadness, at the outcome of the brief campaign. This reaction was based not on the casualty lists—both sides had lost 84 killed, though the Confederate total of wounded and captured was the larger: 372 to 299—but on his view of the fighting qualities shown. “In one respect the contrast between the opposing forces was very striking,” he declared. “The enemy were well clothed, and their encampments showed the presence of every comfort and even luxury. Our men had little transportation, indifferent food, and no shelter. Half of them had no coats, and hundreds were without either shoes or socks; yet no troops ever behaved with greater gallantry and even reckless audacity. What can make this difference unless it be the sublime courage inspired by a just cause?”
Whether right made might, or might made right—or, indeed, whether either was on the former Vice President’s side in this case—was a question open to much debate, then and thereafter. Butler, for one, did not agree with his assessment. According to him, the rebels “took advantage of [the garrison’s] sickness from the malaria of the marshes of Vicksburg to make a cowardly attack,” which was bloodily repulsed with “more than a thousand killed and wounded.” But the Southerner’s claim to physical as well as moral victory was considerably strengthened two weeks later when Butler, after congratulating his soldiers for their staunchness—“The Spanish conqueror of Mexico won imperishable renown by landing in that country and burning his transport ships, to cut off all hope of retreat. You, more wise and economical, but with equal providence against retreat, sent yours home”—ordered Baton Rouge abandoned, and dispatched those same transports upriver to bring the endangered troops back to New Orleans.
The flow of what Horace Greeley, back in May, had been calling “A Deluge of Victories” was seemingly reversed, and there was corresponding elation in the South. Next to the capture of a northern capital, what could be better than the recovery of a southern one? More important, tactically speaking, the Federal grip on the Mississippi—so close to strangulation a month ago—had been loosened even further, and to make sure that it was not reapplied Breckinridge had already sent most of his troops to occupy and fortify Port Hudson, a left-bank position of great natural strength. Potentially another Vicksburg, its bluff commanded a sharp bend of the river about midway between Baton Rouge and the mouth of the Red, thus assuring a continuation of commerce with the Transmississippi, including the grainlands of Northwest Louisiana and the cattle-rich plains of Texas.
That was but part of the brightening overall picture. In Virginia, McClellan had been repulsed. Grant was stalled in North Mississippi. Buell had lost the race for Chattanooga. And in all these widespread regions Confederate armies were poised to take the offensive: particularly in East Tennessee, as Breckinridge learned from a letter Bragg sent him immediately after the fight at Baton Rouge. Extending an invitation to the former Bluegrass politician, the terrible-tempered North Carolinian was in a strangely rollicking mood: “My army has promised to make me military governor of Ohio in ninety days (Seward’s time for crushing the rebellion), and as they cannot do that without passing your home, I have thought you would like to have an escort to visit your family.” He added, in a more serious vein, “Your influence in Kentucky would be equal to an extra division in my army.… If you desire it, and General Van Dorn will consent, you shall come at once. A command is ready for you, and I shall hope to see your eyes beam again at the command ‘Forward,’ as they did at Shiloh, in the midst of our greatest success.”
This was seconded by Hardee, who telegraphed on August 23, five days before the Chattanooga jump-off: “Come here, if possible. I have a splendid division for you to lead into Kentucky.”
Breckinridge wired back: “Reserve the division for me.”
One prominent Kentuckian already commanded a division under Hardee: Simon Buckner. Exchanged at last, after five months in prison at Fort Warren, he reported in late July to Richmond, where he was promoted to major general and assigned to duty with the army then on its way to Chattanooga. The army commander was glad to have him, not only because of his proved fighting qualities, but also as a recruiting attraction in his native state; spare muskets were being taken along in wagons, ready for transfer to the shoulders of Kentucky volunteers. Bragg was glad, too, to have the approval of the President for the campaign he was about to undertake, though Davis warned him at the outset with a two-edged compliment predicting future strife, off as well as on the field of battle: “You have the misfortune of being regarded as my personal friend, and are pursued, therefore, with malignant censure by men regardless of truth, and whose want of principle to guide their conduct renders them incapable of conceiving that you are trusted because of your known fitness for command and not because of friendly regard. Revolutions develop the high qualities of the good and the great, but they cannot change the nature of the vicious and the selfish.”
Kirby Smith—described in the same letter as “one of our ablest and purest officers … [whose] promotions, like your own, have come unsought”—left Knoxville on August 14 to move against his West Point classmate George Morgan at Cumberland Gap. The two brigades received from Bragg had raised his striking force to 21,000 men, well over twice the number holding the gap; but finding, as he had predicted, that Morgan was better prepared to resist a siege than he himself was prepared to maintain one, he left a 9000-man division in front of the mountain stronghold, as Bragg had advised, and with the rest of his army crossed the Cumberlands thirty miles to the southwest at Big Creek Gap. This was no raid, he told Richmond. “My advance is made in the hope of permanently occupying Kentucky. It is a bold move, offering brilliant results, but will be accomplished only with hard fighting, and must be sustained by constant reinforcements.” He marched fast, swinging north for Barbourville, which he occupied on August 18. The “constant reinforcements,” of course, would have to be in the form of local volunteers; but none were forthcoming here. Six days later, while preparing to resume the march, he notified Bragg: “Thus far the people are universally hostile to our cause. This sentiment extends through the mountain region of Eastern Kentucky. In the bluegrass region I have better expectations and shall soon test their loyalty.”
Bragg’s own estimate was rosier and a good deal more specific. “Everything is ripe for success,” he informed his co-commander. “The country is aroused and expecting us. Buell’s forces are much scattered, and from all accounts much demoralized. By rapid movements and vigorous blows we may beat him in detail, or by gaining his rear very much increase his demoralization and break him up.” On August 27, the day before the jump-off, he sent word to Sterling Price, holding the line in North Mississippi: “We move from here immediately, later by some days than expected, but in time we hope for a successful campaign. Buell has certainly fallen back from the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and will probably not make a stand this side of Nashville, if there. He is now fortifying that place. General Smith, reinforced by two brigades from this army, has turned Cumberland Gap, and is now marching on Lexington, Ky.… We shall thus have Buell pretty well disposed of. Sherman and Rosecrans we leave to you and Van Dorn, satisfied that you can dispose of them, and we shall confidently expect to meet you on the Ohio and there open the way to Missouri.”
Unquestionably—even without the inclusion of Missouri, which was scarcely more than a closing flourish for the benefit of Price—this was an ambitious project. But Bragg was not only ready and willing to undertake its execution; he had already selected a guide, a model. Beauregard and McClellan, along with a cluster of lesser lights, might take Napoleon. Not Bragg. His chosen prototype was a contemporary, a man who in fact was seven years his junior. Back in Tupelo, on the occasion of promising his soldiers to “give your banners to the breeze,” he also told them: “Others of your countrymen, under the lead of Jackson and Ewell in the Valley of Virginia, have recently shed imperishable renown on our arms, and shown what a small, obedient, disciplined volunteer army can do.” What he intended now, as he stood poised for the jump-off, was a Valley Campaign on a much larger scale, with Smith as Ewell and himself as Stonewall. Like him, he could expect to be badly outnumbered strategically (he had fewer than 30,000 of all arms); yet like him, too, he would translate this disadvantage into “imperishable renown” by means of “rapid movements and vigorous blows.” So far, it was true, the only attributes original and copy had in common were dyspepsia and a readiness to stand deserters before a firing squad. However, it was Bragg’s intention to extend these similarities into other fields of reaction and endeavor during the trial that lay ahead.
Some measure of this intention, complete with Old Testament overtones, was communicated to his troops in a general order read to them before they left their camps around Chattanooga:
The enemy is before us, devastating our fair country, imprisoning our old and venerated men (even the ministers of God), insulting our women, and desecrating our altars. It is our proud lot to be assigned the duty of punishing and driving forth these deluded men, led by desperate adventurers and goaded on by Abolition demagogues and demons. Let us but deserve success and an offended Deity will certainly assure it. Should we be opposed, we must fight at any odds and conquer at any sacrifice. Should the foe retire, we must follow him rapidly to his own territory and make him taste the bitters of invasion.
Soldiers, the enemy is before you and your banners are free. It is for you to decide whether our brothers and sisters of Tennessee and Kentucky shall remain bondmen and bondwomen of the Abolition tyrant or be restored to the freedom inherited from their fathers.
Having heard him out, the long files shouldered their muskets and headed north.
In Virginia, though the basis for it was obviously a good deal less substantial—westward, the blue glacier had not only ground to a halt, it had even reversed direction, whereas here in the East no more than a pause, a hesitation of the mass, had seemingly been effected; McClellan, after all, was scarcely a dozen miles farther from Richmond than he had been on the eve of the Seven Days, besides being more securely based on the James than he had been while crouched astride the treacherous Chickahominy, and Pope was hovering northward, a considerably graver threat, both in numbers and position, than McDowell had ever been—the elation mounted higher. One reason was that the result, however far it fell short of expectation, had been obtained by actual fighting, not by maneuver or mere Federal acquiescence. Another was the return of confidence in the government: especially in the President, whose vindication now appeared complete.
Less than a week before the launching of the assault that flung the bluecoats back from the capital gates, Tom Cobb had been declaring that he saw in Davis “the embodiment and concentration of cowardly littleness [which] he garnishes over with pharisaical hypocrisy. How can God smile upon us while we have such a man [to] lead us?” Few were asking that question now: God had smiled upon them, and a large part of the credit went to the man who by deed as well as title filled the position of Commander in Chief and triumphed over the adversary who occupied that post in the country to the north. The Hezekiah-Sennacherib analogy still held.
As far as the soldiers themselves were concerned, however, the credit went to the general who had been placed at their head in their darkest hour and in one short month, despite their initial resentment, had welded their four disparate components—Johnston’s Manassas army and Magruder’s frazzled Yorktown brigades, Jackson’s Valley command and Huger’s unblooded Norfolk division—into a single striking force, the Army of Northern Virginia, which he hurled with cunning and fury at the blue invaders, massed in their thousands within sight and hearing of Richmond’s steeples and public clocks, and sent them reeling backwards or sidling crablike to their present mud-flat sanctuary under the muzzles of their gunboats. Granny Lee, Evacuating Lee, the King of Spades, had become for his troops what he would remain: Mars Robert. They watched him as he rode among them, the high-colored face above and behind the iron-gray beard, the active, dark-brown eyes, the broad forehead whose upper half showed unexpectedly dazzling white when he removed his wide-brimmed hat to acknowledge their cheers. Distrust had yielded to enthusiasm, which in turn was giving way to awe.
On horseback, deep-chested and long-waisted, with his big, leonine head set thick-necked on massive shoulders, he looked gigantic. Partly that was the aura. It must have been; for when he dismounted, as he often did, to rest his horse—he had a tender concern for the welfare of all animals, even combat infantrymen, aside from those times when he flung them into the crackling uproar of battle like chaff into a furnace—you saw the slight legs, the narrow hips, and realized, with something of a shock, that he was no larger than many of the men around him, and not as large as some. The same contrast, above and below, was apparent in his extremities; the hands were oversized and muscular, the feet tiny as a woman’s. He was in fact just under six feet tall and weighed less than 170 pounds. Quickly, though, you got over the shock (which after all was only the result of comparing flesh and perfection. However he was was how you preferred him) and when you saw him thus in the field your inclination was to remove your hat—not to wave it: just to hold it—and stand there looking at him: Mars Robert.
Not everyone offered such adulation, either in or out of the army. Robert Toombs, for one, who had commanded a brigade under Magruder throughout the Peninsula campaign, considered Lee “far below the occasion.” The Charleston Mercury for another, while it praised the strategy—“projected, as we hear, by General Johnston”—agreed with Toombs as to the tactics: “The blundering manner in which [McClellan] has been allowed to get away, the desultory manner in which he has been pursued by divisions instead of our whole force, enabling him to repulse our attacks, to carry off his artillery, and, finally, to make a fresh stand with an army reinforced are facts, we fear, not very flattering to the generalship of General Lee.”
Lee was rather inclined to agree with the former Georgia statesman, as well as with the South Carolina editor, not only because of his inherent modesty, but also because he knew that what they said was largely true. “His great victory did not elate him, so far as one could see,” his cannoneer son later recalled. This was not for lack of material success. The booty had been ample: 52 fine Union guns (by coincidence, one for every battery in the Army of the Potomac), 31,000 rifles (which gave some measure of the Federal panic, since half were either dropped by casualties or handed over by captives, while the other half were abandoned by men who preferred to travel light) and 10,000 prisoners, most of them unwounded. All this was duly appreciated, especially the rifled guns and the badly needed small arms, but Lee’s essential agreement with Toombs and the Mercury was based on a consideration of what had been left undone, as well as of what had been done—on the contrast, in fact, between conception and execution. “Under ordinary circumstances,” he said in his report to the Adjutant General, “the Federal army should have been destroyed.”
Sound strategy had largely counterbalanced woeful tactics to produce, within limits, a successful campaign. After all, Richmond was no longer even semi-beleaguered. But for the failure, so far as it was a failure beyond those limits, there were three main reasons: 1) poor maps and intelligence, which left the Confederates groping blind, or half blind, all the way from Mechanicsville to Harrison’s Landing, inclusively; 2) poor staff work, especially in the transmission of orders, which was the basis for much of the lack of coördination; and 3) the Army of the Potomac, the hard-core staunchness of its infantry and the skill with which its superior artillery was employed. Of these, the last—referred to by one of Lee’s own aides as “the character and personality of the men behind the Federal guns”—was clearly the most decisive in preventing the wreckage intended, but it was the first which caused what Harvey Hill summed up in one acid sentence: “Throughout this campaign we attacked just when and where the enemy wished us to attack.”
Time and effort, self-application on Lee’s part, might correct the first two of these drawbacks; the third would be with him from here on out. Yet there was still another problem—one he would always face with reluctance, though it too would remain. This was the task of assessing the character and performance of his lieutenants. Longstreet and the two Hills, whatever their personal eccentricities, whether headstrong or impetuous or caustic, had emerged from the test of combat with brighter laurels than before. The same could not be said of another trio: Magruder, Holmes, and Huger. Their reasons for failure were varied—overexcitability, deafness, chronic bad luck—but now that Lee had faced the problem, no matter with what reluctance, he was quick to act. He got rid of them. In Magruder’s case it was simple; for he had been offered, and had accepted, command of a department in the Transmississippi. Lee wished him Godspeed along with Holmes, who went out there too, being placed in charge of the whole far-western theater. That left Huger; but not for long. He was kicked upstairs to the War Department, as chief inspector of artillery and ordnance.
In the course of replacing these departed leaders and redistributing their twelve brigades—which meant, in effect, a drastic reorganization for the work that lay ahead—Lee dealt with another problem of command: the question of what to do about Jackson, whose poor showing throughout the Seven Days was now the subject of much talk. He was reported to have said that he did not intend for his men to do all the fighting, and when he overheard some of his staff discussing his strange delay above White Oak Swamp while Longstreet was struggling desperately at Glendale, he remarked coldly: “If General Lee had wanted me, he could have sent for me.” Lee of course did not join the chorus of critics, nor did he consider shunting Stonewall off to the Transmississippi; but in his regrouping of the army’s nine divisions into two “wings” under its two ranking generals, Longstreet and Jackson, the former was assigned twenty-eight brigades, the latter seven. Stonewall thus had only half as many as had been under him during the late campaign, while Old Pete had nearly five times as many as the half dozen with which he had crossed the Chickahominy.
All through this period of refitting and reorganization, of distributing the captured arms and replacing his veterans’ flop-soled shoes and tattered jackets, Lee had also kept busy trying to determine the enemy’s intentions. It was a complicated problem, involving no less than four Federal armies of various strengths, all unknown. First there was the main force, under McClellan at Harrison’s Landing. Then there was Pope’s newly consolidated Army of Virginia, assumed to be in the vicinity of Manassas. Either or both might take the offensive at any time. The third was at Fredericksburg, threatening Richmond from the north, much as McDowell had done for months. The fourth was Burn-side’s, brought up from North Carolina in the emergency, but still kept aboard its transports, anchored mysteriously off Fort Monroe. Both of these last two forces were in positions from which they could move rapidly to combine and join either of the other two: Pope, for an advance against the vital Virginia Central Railroad: or McClellan, for a renewal of his drive on the capital itself. For the present, though both of course were possible, Lee could find out nothing that would indicate which was probable. All he knew for certain was that delay was not to the advantage of the South. Northern determination had stiffened after this defeat, just as it had done the year before, and Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers had gone out on the day of Malvern Hill.
In chess terms, Lee’s immediate problem was whether to keep his pieces where they were, concentrated to checkmate the king—McClellan—or to disperse them in order to meet an advance by the knights and bishops, off on another quarter of the board. While awaiting developments he withdrew his infantry from the malarial swamps and left the observation of Harrison’s Landing to the cavalry, newly gathered into a two-brigade division under Stuart, who was promoted to major general. Simultaneously, by way of discouraging an attack from that direction, he put his engineers to work constructing permanent fortifications. Anchored to the James at Drewry’s Bluff and extending north along an arc shielding Richmond, these installations would also permit his present lines to be more thinly held if alternate pressure required dispersion. Once they were completed he would be much better prepared for whatever came.
What came, on July 12, was startling news from the north: Pope had occupied Culpeper that morning. What made this startling was that Culpeper was on the Orange & Alexandria, less than thirty miles above Gordonsville. And Gordonsville was on the Virginia Central, at the northern apex of an exposed bend known as “the Gordonsville loop,” which led on westward to Charlottesville and Staunton. This was alternate pressure indeed; for if Pope took Gordonsville he would cut the Confederate supply line connecting Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley, where a bumper crop of corn and wheat was ripening for the harvest. Lee was obliged to meet this threat, and he did so the following day by sending Jackson with his own and Ewell’s divisions—the old Army of the Valley—by rail to Louisa Courthouse, fifteen miles this side of Gordonsville, which he was instructed to occupy if Pope had not already got there in too great strength to be dislodged. The movement was made rapidly by way of Hanover Junction, using eighteen trains of fifteen cars each to transport Stonewall’s 10,000 infantry and artillery, while his cavalry and wagons moved by road.
Strategically, this riposte was as sound as it was necessary, but Lee had other compelling reasons for ordering the movement: one being that he had developed a scathing contempt for the leader of the force at which it was aimed. After issuing the bombastic address to his soldiers (“Let us understand each other.… Disaster and shame lurk in the rear”) Pope had joined them in the field and had proceeded at once, in a series of formal orders, to give his attention to the civilians in his prospective theater of operations. One directed his army to live off the country and to reimburse only those persons who could prove devotion to the flag he represented. Another prescribed stern measures to be taken in retaliation for guerilla activities. A third provided for the arrest of all male noncombatants within his lines, the expulsion of those who refused to take a loyalty oath, and their prosecution as spies if they returned. Furthermore, any man or woman who remained would be liable to the death penalty for attempting to communicate with the enemy—presumably including a mother who wrote to a son in the southern army. These mandates were not in accordance with Lee’s notion of civilized warfare; he was downright contemptuous of the man who ordered their adoption. “The miscreant Pope,” he called him, and he said of him: “He ought to be suppressed if possible.”
Just now it was not possible, Jackson reported. He had beaten Pope to Gordonsville, arriving there from Louisa on July 19, but the bluecoats around Culpeper were too numerous to be attacked at present. Reinforce him, Stonewall added, and he would gladly undertake all the suppression Lee could ask for. That was what Lee was considering, though the risk was admittedly great. Left with just under 70,000 men—including Holmes’ former command, shifted south of the James to cover Petersburg and placed under D. H. Hill with an eye toward possible future operations in his native North Carolina—he knew he was badly outnumbered by McClellan, who moreover was beginning to show signs of activity. Besides, there were those other two armies, at Fredericksburg and off Fort Monroe: Lee still did not know in which direction they might move. Much as he wanted Pope whipped and driven back across the Rappahannock, the odds were long against weakening the capital defenses for that purpose. Nevertheless he decided to take the gamble. On July 27 he ordered A. P. Hill to Gordonsville, where the Light Division would join the Valley Army for a strike at Pope.
His hope was that this combined force would deliver its blow quickly, disposing of Pope with a knockout punch, then return to Richmond in time to help block any assault McClellan might attempt when he learned of its detachment. This would call for rapid, well-coördinated movements and a style of fighting characterized by a minimum of confusion and hesitation: quite the opposite, in fact, of the style Jackson had demonstrated throughout the Seven Days. One reason for his poor showing on the Peninsula, Lee suspected, was his known reluctance to take subordinate commanders into his military confidence. Also, in consideration of Little Powell’s sensitive and highly volatile nature—he had already clashed with Longstreet over what he considered a slight to his division in the distribution of honors, and Longstreet had promptly put him in arrest, from which Lee had released him for the present expedition—there was the danger of an explosion when he came into contact with the stern and taciturn Stonewall. Accordingly, Lee wrote Jackson a letter in which he alluded tactfully to the problem. After repeating the injunction, “I want Pope to be suppressed,” he concluded: “A. P. Hill you will, I think, find a good officer, with whom you can consult, and by advising with your division commanders as to your movements much trouble will be saved you in arranging details, as they can act more intelligently.… Cache your troops as much as possible till you can strike your blow, and be prepared to return to me when done, if necessary. I will endeavor to keep General McClellan quiet till it is over, if rapidly executed.”
Keeping McClellan quiet might well turn out to be a good deal easier said than done. With one third of his army off after Pope, Lee was down to 56,000 men, including two brigades that arrived next day from South Carolina: whereas McClellan was not only half again larger now, he would have twice as many troops as Lee if he were reinforced by Burnside and the brigades at Fredericksburg, which Lee could do absolutely nothing to prevent. Besides, the Young Napoleon had considerable freedom of action. He could stay where he was, a hovering threat; he could steam back up the Potomac to join Pope and the others; he could advance from his present camp against the southern capital, less than twenty airline miles away. In the latter case, two routes were available to him. He could move up the left bank of the James, more or less as before, except that he would be securely based; or he could cross the river, under cover of his gunboats, capture Petersburg, and swarm into Richmond by the back door. All were possibilities to fret the mind of Lee, who so far had been able to find no clew as to which course his adversary favored. “In the prospect before me,” he wrote his wife, “I cannot see a single ray of pleasure during this war.”
One way to keep McClellan quiet, Lee reasoned paradoxically, or at any rate make him hug his camp while the southern army was divided, might be to stir him up; that is, make him think he was about to be attacked. An infantry feint being impractical, Lee decided on an artillery demonstration. Under cover of darkness, forty-three guns of various calibers were concentrated on the south side of the James at Cog-gin’s Point, opposite Harrison’s Landing, and on the last night of July they opened fire on the Federal camp. The result, as in the case of Stuart’s popgun bombardment four weeks back, was more spectacular than effective. After some original confusion, the Union artillerists and sailors brought their heavier guns to bear and smothered the Confederate batteries. On August 3, threatened with capture by an amphibious countermovement, they had to be withdrawn. Except for the effect it might have had on McClellan himself, enlarging his natural caution, the demonstration was a failure.
Two days later, by way of recompense, Lee got his first real hint as to the Federal overall strategy. A young Confederate cavalry officer, Captain John S. Mosby, had been captured two weeks before while on his way upstate to find recruits for a partisan command, and had been taken to Fort Monroe to await exchange. As soon as he was released he came to Lee with information he had picked up while imprisoned: Burnside was under orders to take his transports up the Potomac, debark his troops at Aquia Creek, and march them overland to Fredericksburg. If true, this meant considerable danger to Jackson, who was already badly outnumbered by the enemy north of Gordonsville, as well as to the Virginia Central, which led westward to the Valley granary. What was more, it was a strong indication that the enemy’s next major effort would be in northern Virginia, where Lee was weakest, not here on the James. He would have moved at least a portion of his force to meet this threat at once, except that on the same day his cavalry reported a heavy force advancing from Harrison’s, up the left bank of the river, against Richmond. Apparently it was not McClellan’s caution which had been enlarged by the abortive Coggin’s Point demonstration, but rather his self-confidence.
Lee marched three divisions out to meet him the following day, August 6, and approaching Malvern Hill near sundown found the Federals drawn up menacingly on the crest. Intending no repetition of last month’s headlong, blind attack up the rolling slope, he extended his left, skirmished briskly on the right, and braced his troops for the downhill assault. At nightfall there was every indication that the armies would be locked in battle tomorrow. Instead—as had been more or less the case five weeks ago—dawn showed the hill empty of all but a handful of blue vedettes, who at the first sign of a Confederate advance scampered down the reverse slope to join the main body, already well on its way back to its camp on the James.
This was strange indeed: passing strange. Lee decided that the only explanation for McClellan’s sudden advance-and-retreat was that it was intended to cover the movement Mosby had discerned at Fort Monroe. If this was so, and Burnside was headed for Fredericksburg, there still remained the question of what he would do when he got there. He could join Pope directly; he could operate against Richmond from the north; or he could attempt to cut the Virginia Central in Jackson’s rear, between Gordonsville and Hanover Junction. The best way to forestall this last—the most immediately dangerous of the three—would be for Jackson to strike Pope, who would then be likely to call on Burnside for support. Until Lee knew whether McClellan intended to renew his advance on Richmond, however, he did not feel that he could further weaken the capital defenses in order to reinforce Jackson; nor did he feel that he should give him peremptory orders to attack, unsupported, without himself knowing the tactical situation at first hand. Accordingly, before the day was over, he did the next best thing. He sat down and wrote Stonewall a long letter in which he made it clear that he relied on his discretion.
After warning him not to count on reinforcements—“If I can send them I will; if I cannot, and you think it proper and advantageous, act without them”—he outlined the dilemma as he saw it and suggested what he believed was the best solution, an immediate thrust at Pope, though he cautioned against rashness: “I would rather you should have easy fighting and heavy victories.” It was a warning addressed more to the erstwhile hard-driving hero of the Valley, who smote the enemy hip and thigh, wherever found, than to the sluggard of the Seven Days, who dawdled and withheld his hand from bloodshed. Apparently Lee had put the latter out of his mind. “I must now leave the matter to your reflection and good judgment,” he concluded. “Make up your mind what is best to be done under all the circumstances which surround us, and let me hear the result at which you arrive. I. will inform you if any change takes place here that bears on the subject.”
Mosby was right: Burnside had been ordered to Fredericksburg a week ago, on August 1, nine days after Halleck’s arrival in Washington from the West. Having scattered the armies there for an assimilation of what had been won, Old Brains now proposed to unite those of the East for a new beginning. In both cases, however—since the concentration was not to be on the Peninsula, where defeat was recent, but in northern Virginia, where defeat was a full year old—the effect was the same: to shift the Union juggernaut into reverse. McClellan, too, was about to be withdrawn.
Nothing less than a new beginning would put the derailed engine back on the track; or so it seemed to the newly appointed general-in-chief, who had reached the capital in a time of gloom. Flags drooped at half-mast under the press of heat and crape festooned the public buildings in observance of the death of Martin Van Buren, a used-up man. No such honors had marked the passing of the Virginian John Tyler the month before; but that was in a sunnier time, and even in the present instance the crape seemed more an expression of the general mood than grief for a particular man, ex-President or not; Van Buren was already part of ancient history. Halleck, at any rate, wasted little time in speculation on such matters. Instead, after spending a day in Washington, he got aboard a steamer and went straight to what he believed was the source of discontent: the Army of the Potomac, camped now on the mud flats of the James.
In spite of the pride he took in having executed the movement under pressure, and in spite of the fact that Lincoln had been congratulatory and Stanton even fawning, McClellan had been expecting trouble ever since his change of base. The President had wired him “a thousand thanks” after Malvern Hill. “Be assured,” he added, “the heroism and skill of yourself and officers and men is, and forever will be, appreciated. If you can hold your present position [at Harrison’s] we shall hive the enemy yet.” Stanton put it stronger, or anyhow longer. “Be assured,” he wrote, “that you shall have the support of this Department as cordially and faithfully as was ever rendered by man to man, and if we should ever live to see each other face to face you will be satisfied that you have never had from me anything but the most confiding integrity.” That was larding it pretty thick, but he larded it even thicker in conversation with McClellan’s father-in-law, who went to Washington to see him. “General Marcy,” he told the chief of staff, with a sudden rush of feeling, “I have from the commencement of our acquaintance up to the present moment been General McClellan’s warmest friend. I feel so kind toward him that I would get down on my knees to him if that would serve him. Yes sir,” he continued, warming as he spoke. “If it would do him any service I would be willing to lay down naked in the gutter and allow him to stand upon my body for hours.”
Stanton lying naked in the gutter was a prospect McClellan could contemplate with pleasure, but he was not deluded into thinking such a scene would ever be staged—except in his mind’s eye. He knew well enough that Stanton was working against him, tooth and nail. Nor did Lincoln’s assurances carry their former weight: especially after the arrival of John Pope and the Administration’s tacit approval of the mandates he issued regarding noncombatants in his theater of operations. That was what really tore it, McClellan wrote his wife. “When you contrast the policy I urged in my letter to the President with that of Congress and of Mr Pope, you can readily agree with me that there can be little natural confidence between the government and myself. We are the antipodes of each other; and it is more than probable that they will take the earliest opportunity to relieve me from command and get me out of sight.”
Now here came Halleck, slack-fleshed and goggle-eyed, formerly his subordinate, now his chief, holding the office he himself had lost. It was bitter. Presently, however, after a hasty review of the troops, Halleck calmed McClellan’s apprehensions by informing him that he had not come to undermine him or relieve him of command, but to find out what he required in the way of additional men in order to renew the drive on the rebel capital. McClellan brightened and unfolded a map on which he began to indicate, with pride and enthusiasm, a new plan of attack. He would cross the James and capture Petersburg, outflanking the enemy fortifications and severing the southside supply lines, then swing north and enter Richmond by the back door. Halleck shook his head. Too risky, he said, and vetoed the proposal then and there. McClellan, his enthusiasm dampened, proceeded to an estimate of the situation. His effective strength, he said, was 88,665; Lee’s was 200,000. Nevertheless, if the government would give him 30,000 reinforcements he would assault the northside intrenchments with “a good chance of success.” Halleck frowned. No more than 20,000 were available, and if these would not suffice, he said, the army would have to be withdrawn from the Peninsula to unite with Pope in the vicinity of Washington. Horrified at the notion, McClellan excused himself in order to confer with his corps commanders. Next morning he reported, somewhat gloomily, that he was “willing to try it” with that number. Halleck nodded and got back aboard the steamboat to return to Washington. McClellan’s genial spirits rose again. “I think that Halleck will support me and give me the means to take Richmond,” he wrote his wife.
Whatever Halleck intended when he left, his final decision was considerably affected by a telegram he found waiting for him when he docked. It was from McClellan; apparently it had been sent almost as soon as Halleck’s steamer passed from sight. Confederate reinforcements, he said, were “pouring into Richmond from the South.” To meet this new development, and to enable him to deliver “a rapid and heavy blow,” he wanted more troops than the 20,000 just agreed on. “Can you not possibly draw 15,000 or 20,000 men from the West to reinforce me temporarily?” he pleaded. “They can return the moment we gain Richmond. Please give weight to this suggestion; I am sure it merits it.”
Halleck was amazed, and went to Lincoln with the problem. Lincoln was not amazed at all. In fact, he found the telegram very much in character. If by some magic he could reinforce McClellan with 100,000 troops today, he said, Little Mac would be delighted and would promise to capture Richmond tomorrow; but when tomorrow came he would report the enemy strength at 400,000 and announce that he could not advance until he got another 100,000 reinforcements. Halleck turned this over in his mind, together with another consideration. If Lee was as strong as McClellan said he was—stronger than Pope and McClellan combined—it was folly to keep the Federal armies exposed to destruction in detail. It was in fact imperative to unite them without delay. At last he made his decision, agreeing with Lincoln that McClellan’s army would have to be withdrawn. On July 29 he ordered every available steamer in Baltimore harbor to proceed at once to the James, and next day he instructed McClellan to prepare to evacuate his sick and wounded. He did not tell him why; he merely remarked ambiguously that this was being done “in order to enable you to move in any direction.” Two days later, Burnside was told to take his transports up the Potomac to Aquia Creek, where the troops would debark for a twelve-mile march to Fredericksburg. McClellan’s own orders were sent on August 3: “It is determined to withdraw your army from the Peninsula to Aquia Creek. You will take immediate measures to effect this, covering the movement as best you can.”
McClellan was thunderstruck. The order for the removal of his sick had aroused his suspicions five days ago, despite—or perhaps because of—the disclaimer that it would leave him free “to move in any direction,” and he had been prompt to register his protest: “Our true policy is to reinforce [this] army by every available means and throw it again upon Richmond. Should it be determined to withdraw it, I shall look upon our cause as lost.” Perhaps he thought the weight of this opinion would forestall any such calamity. If so, he now saw how useless it had been. Yet he did not abandon hope; or anyhow he did not stop trying to ward off the blow. At noon on August 4 he knelt figuratively at the feet of Halleck and made a final anguished plea. “Your telegram of last evening is received. I must confess that it has caused me the greatest pain I ever experienced, for I am convinced that the order to withdraw this army to Aquia Creek will prove disastrous to our cause.” First he pointed out that it was tactical folly to make “a march of 145 miles to reach a point now only 25 miles distant, and to deprive ourselves entirely of the powerful aid of the gunboats and water transportation. Add to this the certain demoralization of this army which would ensue, and these appear to me sufficient reasons to make it my imperative duty to urge in the strongest terms afforded by our language that this order may be rescinded.” Then came the impassioned words to which the rest had served as prologue: “Here, directly in front of this army, is the heart of the rebellion. It is here that all our resources should be collected to strike the blow which will determine the fate of the nation.… It matters not what partial reverses we may meet with elsewhere. Here is the true defense of Washington. It is here, on the banks of the James, that the fate of the Union should be decided.”
Halleck replied by wire and by mail. “I must take things as I find them,” he said in the letter. “I find the forces divided, and I wish to unite them. Only one feasible plan has been presented for doing this. If you or anyone else had presented a better plan I certainly should have adopted it. But all of your plans require reinforcements, which it is impossible to give you. It is very easy to ask for reinforcements, but it is not so easy to give them when you have no disposable troops at your command.” The telegram, being briefer, was more to the point. After saying, “You cannot regret the order of withdrawal more than I did the necessity of giving it,” Halleck put an end to the discussion: “It will not be rescinded and you will be expected to execute it with all possible promptness.” Next day, August 7—the date of Lee’s letter urging Jackson to consider a strike at Pope—the need for haste was emphasized in a second wire received by the harassed commander at Harrison’s Landing. “I must beg of you, General, to hurry along this movement,” Halleck told him. “Your reputation as well as mine may be involved in its rapid execution.”
Left with neither voice nor choice in the matter, McClellan worked hard to speed the evacuation. But he wrote his wife: “They are committing a fatal error in withdrawing me from here, and the future will show it. I think the result of their machination will be that Pope will be badly thrashed within ten days, and that they will be very glad to turn over the redemption of their affairs to me.”
The danger, the crying need for haste as Halleck saw it, was that Lee might take advantage of his interior lines and attack one or the other of the two main Federal forces before the northward shift began, or, worse still, while the movement was in progress. Of the two—Pope on the Rappahannock and McClellan on the James—Old Brains was most concerned about the former. As he put it to McClellan, who was struggling to extract his troops from the malarial Peninsula bottoms, “This delay might not only be fatal to the health of your army, but in the meantime General Pope’s forces would be exposed to the heavy blows of the enemy without the slightest hope of assistance from you.”
Pope was worried too, although he did not let it show in his manner. Privately he was complaining to Halleck about “the supineness of the Army of the Potomac,” which he said “renders it easy for the enemy to reinforce Jackson heavily,” and he urged: “Please make McClellan do something.” Publicly, however, he showed no symptoms of doubt or trepidation. On August 8, when he transferred his headquarters southward to Culpeper, Halleck wired him uneasily: “Do not advance, so as to expose yourself to any disaster, unless you can better your line of defense, until we can get more troops upon the Rappahannock.… You must be very cautious.” Pope seemed unalarmed; he appeared, in fact, not to have a single cautious bone in his whole body. He intended to hold where he was, despite the risk involved in the knowledge that Stonewall Jackson was before him with a force he estimated at 30,000 men.
Numerically, as of early August, his confidence was well founded. Exclusive of Burnside, whose 12,000 had debarked at Aquia and were now at Falmouth, he had 77,779 soldiers in the Army of Virginia. Even after deducting the troops in the Washington fortifications, along with those in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond, he was left with just over 56,000 in the eight divisions of infantry and two brigades of cavalry comprising the three corps under McDowell, Banks, and Sigel. This was the field force proper, and it seemed ample for the execution of the project he had conceived at the outset. His intention had been to operate southward down the Orange & Alexandria to Gordonsville and beyond, thereby menacing the Virginia Central so that Lee would weaken the Richmond defenses to the point where McClellan could make a successful assault. McClellan’s pending withdrawal would alter at least a part of this, of course, but Pope still thought the plan a good one: not the least of its advantages being that it had the approval and support of the Administration, since it simultaneously covered Washington. What was more, his assignment—formerly minor, or anyhow secondary—now became major. Instead of setting Richmond up for capture by McClellan, he would take the place himself and be known thereafter as the man who broke the back of the rebellion. That was a thought to warm the heart. He would consolidate his gains, then proceed with his advance, reinforced by such numbers as reached him from the Army of the Potomac.
At present, it was true, his striking force was rather scattered. More than a third of McDowell’s corps—11,000 infantry, with 30 guns and about 500 cavalry—was still at Fredericksburg, under Brigadier General Rufus King, blocking the direct approach to Washington. Now that Burnside had arrived, Pope might have summoned King to join him, but just now he preferred to keep him where he was, menacing Jackson’s supply line and playing on Lee’s fears for the safety of his capital. Besides, he felt strong enough without him. Banks and Sigel had come eastward through the passes of the Blue Ridge, and though their five divisions had not been consolidated, either with each other or with McDowell’s two, Pope still had better than 44,000 troops with which to oppose the estimated 30,000 rebels in his immediate front. The situation was not without its dangers: Halleck kept saying so, at any rate, and old General Wool, transferred from Fort Monroe to Maryland, had warned him at the outset: “Jackson is an enterprising officer. Delays are dangerous.” But Pope was not alarmed. If the highly touted Stonewall wanted a fight, at those odds, he would gladly accommodate him.
Banks felt the same way about it, only more so; for while Pope intended to earn a reputation here in the East, Banks was determined to retrieve one. On August 8, therefore, he was pleased to receive at Culpeper an order directing him to march his two divisions south: Jackson had crossed the Rapidan, moving north, and Pope wanted Banks to delay him while the rest of the army was being assembled to give him the battle he seemed to be seeking. Banks did not hesitate. McDowell and Sigel were behind him; King was on the way from Fredericksburg. Next morning, eight hot and dusty miles out of Culpeper, he came under long-range artillery fire from the slopes of a lone peak called Cedar Mountain, and pressing on found rebel infantry disposed in strength about its northern base and in the woods and fields off to the right. After more than two months of brooding over the shocks of May, he was face to face with the old Valley adversary whose soldiers had added insult to injury by giving him the nickname “Commissary” Banks.
He was itching to attack, then and there, but in the face of the known odds—he was down to about 8000 men as a result of multiple detachments, while Jackson was reported to have at least three times that many—he did not feel free to do so on his own responsibility. Then a courier arrived from Culpeper, a staff colonel sent by Pope with a verbal message which seemed to authorize an immediate all-out attack. (The officer’s name was Louis Marshall, a Union-loyal Virginian and a nephew of R. E. Lee, who had said of him: “I could forgive [his] fighting against us, but not his joining Pope.”) Welcome as the message was, Banks could scarcely believe his ears. In fact, he had it written down and then read back for verification:
General Banks will move to the front immediately, assume command of all the forces in the front, deploy his skirmishers if the enemy approaches, and attack him immediately as soon as he approaches, and be reinforced from here.
This ambiguous farrago, dictated by Lee’s nephew in the name of Pope, was open to conflicting interpretations. It might mean that the attack was to be made with skirmishers only, holding the main body on the defensive until McDowell arrived to even the odds and Sigel came up to stretch them in favor of the Union. On the other hand, it might mean what it said in the words that were quickest to catch the eye: “Attack him immediately as soon as he approaches.” That sounded like the army commander who three weeks ago had admonished his generals “to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found.” At any rate, whatever the odds, Banks took him at his word. He put his men in attack formation and sent them forward, on the left and on the right.
Lee’s letter of August 7, recommending a swipe at Pope, had not been needed; for while he was writing it Jackson was already putting his 25,000 soldiers in motion to carry out the strategy it suggested. His cavalry having reported the superior enemy forces badly scattered beyond the Rapidan, he hoped to make a rapid march across that stream, pounce on one of the isolated segments, and withdraw Valley-style before Pope could concentrate against him. So far, it had not worked at all that way, however—primarily because another letter of Lee’s, while needed, had not been heeded. A. P. Hill was kept as much in the dark as to his chief’s intentions as Winder and Ewell had ever been. “I pledge you my word, Doctor,” the latter told an inquiring chaplain before the movement got under way, “I do not know whether we march north, south, east or west, or whether we will march at all. General Jackson has simply ordered me to have the division ready to move at dawn. I have been ready ever since, and have no further indication of his plans. That is almost all I ever know of his designs.”
Stonewall was still Stonewall, especially when secrecy was involved, and no one—not even Robert E. Lee, of whom he said: “I am willing to follow him blindfolded”—was going to change him. The result, as Lee had feared, was mutual resentment and mistrust. Not only did Jackson not “consult” with his red-haired lieutenant, whose so-called Light Division was as large as the other two combined; he rode him unmercifully for every slight infraction of the rules long since established for the Army of the Valley. Consequently, glad as he had been to get away from Longstreet, Hill began to suspect that he had leaped from the frying pan into the fire. Resentment bred confusion, and confusion mounted quickly toward a climax in the course of the march northward against Pope. Having reached Orange in good order the first day, August 7, Jackson issued instructions for the advance across the Rapidan tomorrow, which would place his army in position for a strike at Culpeper the following day. The order of march would be Ewell, Hill, Winder; so he said; but during the night he changed his mind and told Ewell to take an alternate road. Uninformed of the change, Hill had his men lined up next morning on the outskirts of town, waiting for Ewell to take the lead. That was where Jackson found him. Angry at the delay, he rebuked him and passed Winder to the front. The result was further delay and a miserable showing, complicated by Federal cavalry probing at his wagon train. Ewell made barely eight miles before sundown, Winder about half that, and Hill was less than two miles out of Orange when the army halted for the night. Jackson was furious. So was Hill. Ewell fretted. Winder was down with fever, riding in an ambulance despite his doctor’s orders that he leave the field entirely. Several men had died of sunstroke, and the rest took their cue from their commanders, grumbling at the way they had been shuffled about in the dust and heat.
Overnight, Jackson’s wrath turned to gloom. The fast-stepping Army of the Valley, formerly such a close-stitched organization, seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Rising next morning to resume the march, he informed Lee: “I am not making much progress.… Today I do not expect much more than to close up [the column] and clear the country around the train of the enemy’s cavalry. I fear that the expedition will, in consequence of my tardy movements, be productive of but little good.”
Ewell had the lead; Winder was in close support; Hill was marching hard to close the gap. The morning wore on, hot as yesterday. Noon came and went. Presently, up ahead, there was the boom of guns, and word came back to Jackson that the Federals were making a stand, apparently with horse artillery. He rode forward and made a brief reconnaissance. This was piedmont country, rolling, heavily wooded except for scattered fields of grain. The bluecoats did not appear to be present in strength, but there was no real telling: Jackson decided to wait for Hill before advancing. Off to the right was Cedar Mountain, obviously the key to the position. Ewell was told to put his batteries there and his infantry below them, along the northern base; Winder would take position on the left in order to overlap the Yankee line when the signal was given to go forward. There was no hurry. It was now past 2 o’clock and Culpeper was eight miles away: too far, in any event, for an attack to be made on it today. Jackson went onto the porch of a nearby farmhouse and lay down to take a nap.
Meanwhile the artillery duel continued, the Union guns firing accurately and fast. This was clearly something more than a mere delaying action staged by cavalry; there was infantry out there beyond the woods, though in what strength could not be told. Manifestly weak, pale as his shirt—he was in fact in his shirt sleeves—Winder had left his ambulance, ignoring the doctor’s protests, put his troops in line, extending the left as instructed, and then had joined his batteries, observing their fire with binoculars and calling out corrections for the gunners. It was now about 4 o’clock. An officer went down alongside him, clipped on the head by a fragment of shell; another was eviscerated by a jagged splinter; a third was struck in the rump by an unexploded ricochet and hurled ten feet, though he suffered only bruises as a result. Then came Winder’s turn. Tall and wavy-haired, he kept his post, and as he continued to direct the counterbattery fire, calm and cool-looking in his shirt sleeves, with the binoculars held to his eyes, a shell came screaming at him, crashing through his left arm and tearing off most of the ribs on that side of his chest. He fell straight back and lay full length on the ground, quivering spasmodically.
“General, do you know me?” a staff lieutenant asked, bending over the sufferer in order to be heard above the thunder of the guns.
“Oh yes,” Winder said vaguely, and his mind began to wander. The guns were bucking and banging all around him, but he was back at home again in Maryland. In shock, he spoke disconnectedly of his wife and children until a chaplain came and knelt beside him, seeking to turn his thoughts from worldly things.
“General, lift up your head to God.”
“I do,” Winder said calmly. “I do lift it up to him.”
Carried to the rear, he died just at sundown, asking after the welfare of his men, and those who were with him were hard put for a comforting answer. By then the fury of the Union assault had crashed against his lines, which had broken in several places. Jackson’s plan for outflanking the enemy on the left had miscarried; it was he who was outflanked in that direction. The sudden crash of musketry, following close on the news that Winder had been mangled by a shell, brought him off the farmhouse porch and into the saddle. He rode hard toward the left, entering a moil of fugitives who had given way in panic when the bluecoats emerged roaring from the cover of the woods. Drawing his sword—a thing no one had ever seen him do before in battle—he brandished it above his head and called out hoarsely: “Rally, brave men, and press forward! Your general will lead you; Jackson will lead you! Follow me!”
This had an immediate effect, for the sight was as startling in its way as the unexpected appearance of the Federals had been. The men halted in their tracks, staring open-mouthed, and then began to rally in response to the cries of their officers, echoing Stonewall, who was finally persuaded to retire out of range of the bullets twittering round him. “Good, good,” he said as he turned back, Winder’s successor having assured him that the Yankees would be stopped. Whether this promise could have been kept in the face of another assault was another matter, but fortunately by now the battle was moving in the opposite direction: A. P. Hill had arrived with the Light Division. Opening ranks to let the fugitives through, Little Powell’s veterans swamped the blue attackers, flung them back on their reserves, and pursued them northward through the gathering twilight. So quickly, after the manner of light fiction, had victory been snatched from the flames of defeat, if not disaster.
Thankful as Jackson was for this deliverance, he was by no means satisfied. Banks had escaped him once before; he did not intend to let him get away again. A full moon was rising, and he ordered the chase continued by its light. Whenever resistance was encountered he passed his guns to the front, shelled the woods, and then resumed the pursuit, gathering shell-dazed prisoners as he went. Four hundred bluecoats were captured in all, bringing the total Federal losses to 2381; Jackson himself had lost 1276. At last, however, receiving word from his cavalry that the enemy had been heavily reinforced, he called a halt within half a dozen miles of Culpeper and passed the word for his men to sleep on their arms in line of battle. He himself rode back toward Cedar Mountain, seeking shelter at roadside houses along the way. At each he was told that he was welcome but that the wounded filled the rooms. Finally he drew rein beside a grassy plot, dismounted stiffly, and lay face down on the turf, wrapped in a borrowed cloak. When a staff officer asked if he wanted something to eat: “No,” he groaned, “I want rest: nothing but rest,” and was soon asleep.
Sunday, August 10, dawned hot and humid, the quiet broken only by the moans and shrieks of the injured, blue and gray, presently augmented by their piteous cries for water as the sun rose burning, stiffening their wounds. Surgeons and aid men passed among them, and burial details came along behind. The scavengers were active, too, gleaning the field of arms and equipment; as usual, Old Blue Light wanted all he could lay hands on. Thus the morning wore away, and not a shot was fired. Aware that Sigel and McDowell had arrived to give Pope two whole corps and half of a third—King was still on the way from Fredericksburg, where Burnside was on call—Jackson would not deliver a Sabbath attack; but he was prepared to receive one, whatever the odds, so long as there were wounded men to be cared for and spoils to be loaded into his wagons. That afternoon, as always seemed to be the case on the morrow of a battle, the weather broke. There were long peals of thunder, followed by rain. Jackson held his ground, and the various details continued their work into the night.
Next morning a deputation of Federal horsemen came forward under a flag of truce, proposing an armistice for the removal of the wounded. Jackson gladly agreed; for King’s arrival that night would give Pope better than twice as many troops as he himself had, and this would afford him additional time in which to prepare for the withdrawal he now knew was necessary. While the soldiers of both armies mingled on the field where they had fought, he finished packing his wagons and got off a message to Lee: “God blessed our arms with another victory.” When darkness came he lighted campfires all along his front, stole away southward under cover of their burning, and recrossed the Rapidan, unmolested, unpursued.
Another victory, he called it: not without justification. He had inflicted a thousand more casualties than he suffered, and for two days after the battle he had remained in control of the field. Yet there were other aspects he ignored. Banks had done to him what he had tried to do to Shields at Kernstown, and what was more had done it with considerably greater success, even apart from the initial rout; for in the end it was Stonewall who retreated. But now that the roles were reversed he applied a different set of standards. Privately, according to his chief of staff, he went so far as to refer to Cedar Mountain as “the most successful of his exploits.” Few would agree with him in this, however, even among the men in his own army. They had been mishandled and they knew it. Outnumbering the enemy three to one on the field of fight, he had been careless in reconnaissance, allowing his troops to be outflanked while he drowsed on a farmhouse veranda, and had swung into vigorous action only after his left wing had been shattered. Following as it did his sorry performance throughout the Seven Days, the recrossing of the Rapidan gave point to a question now being asked: Had Stonewall lost his touch? “Arrogant” was the word applied by some. Others remarked that his former triumphs had been scored against second-raters out in the Valley, “but when pitted against the best of the Federal commanders he did not appear so well.” Then too, there had always been those who considered him crazy—crazy and, so far, lucky. Give him “a month uncontrolled,” one correspondent declared, “and he would destroy himself and all under him.”
Time perhaps would show who was right, the general or his critics, but for the present at least two other men derived particular satisfaction from the battle and its outcome, despite the fact that they viewed it from opposite directions. One of the two was A. P. Hill. Still fuming because of the undeserved rebuke he had received on the outskirts of Orange the day before, he had marched toward the sound of firing and reached the field to find his tormentor face to face with disaster. After opening his ranks to let the fugitives through—including hundreds from the Stonewall Brigade itself—he had launched the counterattack that saved the day and provided whatever factual basis there was for Jackson’s claim to “another victory.” Revenge was seldom sweeter; Hill enjoyed it to the full.
The other satisfied observer was John Pope, who celebrated his eastern debut as a fighting man by publishing, for the encouragement of his army, Halleck’s personal congratulations “on your hard earned but brilliant success against vastly superior numbers. Your troops have covered themselves with glory.” Pope thought so too, now, although at first he had experienced definite twinges of anxiety and doubt. Alarmed by what had happened to Banks as a result of misinterpreting the verbal message garbled by Lee’s nephew, he had hastened to assemble his eight divisions (including King’s, which arrived Monday evening to give him well over 50,000 men) for a renewal of the contest on the morning after the armistice expired. While Jackson was stealing away in the darkness behind a curtain of blazing campfires, Pope was wiring Halleck: “The enemy has been receiving reinforcements all day.… I think it almost certain that we shall be attacked in the morning, and we shall make the best fight we can.” This did not sound much like the belligerent commander who had urged his subordinates to “discard such ideas” as the one of “ ‘taking strong positions and holding them.’ ” However, when he found Stonewall gone with the dawn he recovered his former tone and notified Halleck: “The enemy has retreated under cover of the night.… Our cavalry and artillery are in pursuit. I shall follow with the infantry as far as the Rapidan.” Now it was Halleck’s turn to be alarmed. “Beware of a snare,” he quickly replied. “Feigned retreats are secesh tactics.”
But he need not have worried; not just yet. Pope was content to follow at a distance, and when he reached the near bank of the Rapidan he stopped as he had said he would do. Presently he fell back toward Culpeper, pausing along the way to publish Halleck’s congratulations. He was “delighted and astonished,” he told his soldiers, at their “gallant and intrepid conduct.” Whatever their reaction to this astonishment might be, he went on to venture a prophecy: “Success and glory are sure to accompany such conduct, and it is safe to predict that Cedar Mountain is only the first in a series of victories which shall make the Army of Virginia famous in the land.”
Lee saw it otherwise. Pleased with Jackson’s repulse of Banks, he congratulated him “most heartily on the victory which God has granted you over our enemies” and expressed the hope that it was “but the precursor of others over our foe in that quarter, which will entirely break up and scatter his army.” However, the withdrawal to Gordonsville on August 12, despite Stonewall’s subsequent double-barreled explanation that it was done “in order to avoid being attacked by the vastly superior force in front of me, and with the hope that by thus falling back General Pope would be induced to follow me until I should be reinforced,” not only ended the prospect that his lieutenant would be able to “suppress” Pope and return to Richmond in time to help deal with McClellan; it also re-exposed the Virginia Central. This was as intolerable now as it had been a month ago, and Lee moved promptly to meet the threat the following day by ordering Longstreet to Gordonsville with ten brigades, which reduced by half the army remnant protecting the capital from assault on the east and south. Simultaneously he sent Hood, who now commanded a demi-division composed of his own and Law’s brigades, to Hanover Junction in order to block an advance from Fredericksburg; or if Burnside moved westward to join Pope, Hood could parallel his march and join Jackson. Something of a balance was thus maintained in every direction except McClellan’s, potentially the most dangerous of them all.
Still, potential was a long way from kinetic: especially where McClellan was concerned. A week ago, when the bluecoats marched up Malvern Hill and then back down again, Lee had said of him: “I have no idea that he will advance on Richmond now.” He took the risk, not thinking it great, and presently found it even smaller than he had supposed. On this same August 13, while Longstreet’s men were boarding the cars for their journey out to the piedmont, an English deserter came into the southern lines with a story that part of McClellan’s army was being loaded onto transports. Next day this was confirmed by D. H. Hill, whose scouts on the south side of the James reported Fitz-John Porter’s corps already gone. That was enough for Lee. Convinced that Pope was about to be reinforced from the Peninsula—though he did not know to what extent—he decided to turn his back on Little Mac and give his undivided close-up personal attention to “the miscreant” on the Rapidan. The time was short. Before he went to bed that night he notified Davis: “Unless I hear from you to the contrary I shall leave for G[ordonsville] at 4 a.m. tomorrow. The troops are accumulating there and I must see that arrangements are made for the field.” Tactfully—for he expected to be busy and he understood the man with whom he dealt—he added: “When you do not hear from me, you may feel sure that I do not think it necessary to trouble you. I shall feel obliged to you for any directions you may think proper to give.”
In this sequence of events, Halleck’s worst fears moved toward realization. The Federal dilemma, as he saw it, was that the rebels might concentrate northward and jump Pope before McClellan completed his roundabout transfer from the James to the Rappahannock. The southern commander had already proved himself an opponent not to be trusted with the initiative; yet that was precisely what he would have so long as the Army of the Potomac was in transit. The contest was in the nature of a race, with the Army of Virginia as the prize to be claimed by whichever of the two superior armies moved the fastest.
Lee was not long in seeing it that way, too, and once he had seen it he acted. In fact—necessity, in this case, being not only the mother of invention, but also first cousin to prescience—he acted before he saw it: first, by detaching Jackson: then by reinforcing him with Hill: finally, by sending Longstreet up to reinforce them both: so that, in a sense, he was already running before he heard the starting gun. And now that he heard it he ran faster. As a result he not only got there first, he got there before McClellan had done much more than lift his knees off the cinders. Yet that was all: Fortune’s smile changed abruptly to a frown. Having reached the finish line, Lee found himself unable to break the ribbon he was breasting.
The ribbon was the Rapidan, and Pope was disposed behind it. However, it was not the Union commander who forestalled the intended destruction, but rather a recurrence of the malady which had plagued the Confederates throughout the Seven Days: lack of coördination. Detraining at Gordonsville on August 15, Lee conferred at once with Longstreet and Jackson, who showed him on the map how rare an opportunity lay before him. Nine miles this side of Fredericksburg, the Rapidan and the Rappahannock converged to form the apex of a V laid on its side with the open end to the west. Pope’s attitude within the V, and consequently the attitude of the fifty-odd thousand soldiers he had wedged in there between the constricting rivers, was not unlike that of a browsing ram with his attendant flock. Unaware that the butcher was closing in, he had backed himself into a fence corner, apparently in the belief that he and they were safer so.
In this he was considerably mistaken, as Lee was now preparing to demonstrate. Across the open end of the V, at an average distance of twenty miles from the apex, ran the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, leading back to Manassas Junction, the Army of Virginia’s main supply base. While the infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia was being concentrated behind Clark’s Mountain, masked from observation from across the Rapidan, the cavalry would swing upstream, cross in the darkness, and strike for Rappahannock Station. Destruction of the railroad bridge at that point, severing Pope’s supply line and removing his only chance for a dry-shod crossing of the river in his rear, would be the signal for the infantry to emerge from hiding and surge across the fords to its front. Pope’s army, caught off balance, would be tamped into the cul-de-sac and mangled.
Both wing commanders approved of the plan. Jackson, in fact, was so enthusiastic that he proposed to launch the assault tomorrow. But Longstreet, as on the eve of the Seven Days, and no doubt recalling the Valley general’s faulty logistics on that occasion, suggested a one-day wait. Moreover, though he approved of the basic strategy proposed, he thought better results would be obtained by moving around the enemy right, where the army could take up a strong defensive position in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, forcing Pope to attack until, bled white, too fagged to flee, he could be counterattacked and smothered. Lee agreed to the delay—which was necessary anyhow, the cavalry not having arrived—but preferred to assault the enemy left, so as to come between Pope and whatever reinforcements might try to join him, by way of Fredericksburg, either from Washington or the Peninsula. Next day it was so ordered. The army would take up masked positions near the Rapidan on Sunday, August 17, and be prepared to cross at dawn of the following day, on receiving word that the bridge was out at Rappahannock Station.
That was when things started going wrong: particularly in the cavalry. Stuart had two brigades, one under Wade Hampton, left in front of Richmond, the other under Fitzhugh Lee, the army commander’s nephew, stationed at Hanover Junction. The latter was to be used in the strike at Rappahannock Station; he was expected Sunday night, and Stuart rode out to meet him east of Clark’s Mountain, in rear of Raccoon Ford. Midnight came; there was no sign of him; Jeb and his staff decided to get some sleep on the porch of a roadside house. Just before dawn, hearing hoofbeats in the distance, two officers rode forward to meet what they thought was Lee, but met instead a spatter of carbine fire and came back shouting, “Yankees!” Stuart and the others barely had time to jump for their horses and get away in a hail of bullets, leaving the general’s plumed hat, silk-lined cape, and haversack for the blue troopers, who presently withdrew across the river, whooping with delight as they passed the captured finery around. Subsequently it developed that the ford had been left unguarded by Robert Toombs, who, feeling mellow on his return from a small-hours celebration with some friends, had excused the pickets. Placed in arrest for his neglect, he defied regulations by buckling on his sword and making an impassioned speech to his brigade: whereupon he was relieved of command and ordered back to Gordonsville, much to the discomfort of his troops. This did little to ease Stuart’s injured pride and nothing at all to recover his lost plumage. Skilled as he was at surprising others, the laughing cavalier was not accustomed to being surprised himself. Nor were matters improved by the infantrymen who greeted him for several days thereafter with the question, “Where’s your hat?”
Fitz Lee’s nonarrival, which required a one-day postponement of the attack—it was as well; not all the infantry brigades were in position anyhow—was explained by the fact that, his orders having stressed no need for haste, he had marched by way of Louisa to draw rations and ammunition. When this was discovered it caused another one-day postponement, the attack now being set for August 20. Even this second delay seemed just as well: Pope appeared oblivious and docile, and in the interim Lee would have time to bring another division up from Richmond. Before nightfall on the 18th, however, word came to headquarters that the Federals were breaking camp and retiring toward Culpeper. Next morning Lee climbed to a signal station on Clark’s Mountain and saw for himself that the report was all too true. The sea of tents had disappeared. Long lines of dark-clothed men and white-topped wagons, toylike in the distance, were winding away from the bivouac areas, trailing serpentine clouds of dust in the direction of the Rappahannock. After watching for a time this final evidence of Pope’s escape from the destruction planned for him there between the rivers, Lee put away his binoculars, took a deep breath, and said regretfully to Longstreet, who stood beside him on the mountain top: “General, we little thought that the enemy would turn his back upon us thus early in the campaign.”
If there could be no envelopment, at least there could be a pursuit. Lee crossed the Rapidan the following day: only to find himself breasting another ribbon he could not break. This time, too, the ribbon was a river—the Rappahannock—but the failure to cross this second stream was not so much due to a lack of efficiency in his own army as it was to the high efficiency of his opponent’s. Pope knew well enough now what dangers had been hanging over his head, for he had captured along with Stuart’s plume certain dispatches showing Lee’s plan for his destruction, and in spite of his early disparagement of defensive tactics he was displaying a real talent for such work. After pulling out of the suicidal V, he skillfully took position behind its northern arm, and for two full days, four times around the clock, wherever Lee probed for a crossing there were solid ranks of Federals, well supported by artillery, drawn up to receive him on the high left bank of the Rappahannock.
Notified of the situation, Halleck wired: “Stand firm on that line until I can help you. Fight hard, and aid will soon come.” Pope replied: “You may rely upon our making a very hard fight in case the enemy advances.” Halleck, preferring firmer language, repeated his instructions: “Dispute every inch of ground, and fight like the devil till we can reinforce you. Forty-eight hours more and we can make you strong enough.” Encouraged by this pep talk, as well as by his so-far success in preventing a crossing of the river to his front, Pope reassured the wrought-up Washington commander: “There need be no apprehension, as I think no impression can be made on me for some days.”
Once more Lee was in disagreement. He not only intended to make what his opponent called an “impression,” he knew he had to make one soon or else give up the game. Information from Richmond, added to what he gleaned from northern papers, had convinced him by now that the whole of the Army of the Potomac was on its way to the Rappahannock. Burnside’s troops, under Major General Jesse L. Reno, had already joined Pope, bringing his total strength to 70,000 according to Lee’s computations, and this figure would in turn be more than doubled when McClellan’s men arrived. To oppose this imminent combination, Lee himself had 55,000 of all arms, plus 17,000 still at Richmond. Manifestly, with the odds getting longer every day, whatever was to be done must be done quickly. At any rate, the present stalemate was intolerable. Perhaps one way to break it, Lee reasoned, would be to startle Pope and make him jump by sending Stuart to probe at his rear, particularly the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, which stretched like an exposed nerve back to his base at Manassas. Stuart thought so, too. Ever since the loss of his plume, five days ago near Raccoon Ford, he had been chafing under the jibes and begging Lee to turn him loose. “I intend to make the Yankees pay for that hat,” he had written his wife.
He took off on the morning of August 22, crossing the Rappahannock at Waterloo Bridge with 1500 troopers and two guns. His goal was Catlett’s Station on the O & A, specifically the bridge over Cedar Run just south of there, and he intended to reach it by passing around the rear of Pope’s army, which was drawn up along the east bank of the river north of Rappahannock Station to contest a crossing by Lee’s infantry. During a midday halt at Warrenton a young woman informed him that she had wagered a bottle of wine against a Union quartermaster’s boast that he would be in Richmond within thirty days. “Take his name and look out for him,” Stuart told one of his staff. The column pushed on toward Auburn Mills, rounding the headwaters of Cedar Run, and then proceeded southeastward down the opposite watershed. At sunset a violent storm broke over the troopers’ heads. Night came early; “the darkest night I ever knew,” Stuart called it; but he pressed on, undetected in the rain and blackness, and within striking distance of Catlett’s was rewarded with a piece of luck in the form of a captured orderly, a contraband who, professing his joy at being once more among his “own people,” offered to guide them to the private quarters of General Pope himself. Stuart took him up on that. Surrounding the brightly lighted camp, he had the bugler sound the charge, and a thousand yelling horsemen emerged from the outer darkness, swinging sabers and firing revolvers. The startled bluecoats scattered, and the troopers pursued them, spotting targets by the sudden glare of lightning. It was strange. A lightning flash would show the road filled with running men; then the next would show it empty, the runners vanished.
Despite the effectiveness of evasive tactics which appeared to enlist the aid of the supernatural, more than 200 prisoners and about as many horses were rounded up, including a number of staff officers and blooded animals, along with a good deal of miscellaneous loot. From Pope’s tent—though the general himself, fortunately or unfortunately, was away on a tour of inspection—the raiders appropriated his personal baggage, a payroll chest stuffed with $350,000 in greenbacks, and a dispatch book containing headquarters copies of all messages sent or received during the past week. The railroad bridge over Cedar Run, however—the prime objective of the raid—resisted all attempts at demolition. Too wet to burn, too tough to chop, it had to be left intact when Stuart pulled out before dawn, returning the way he had come.
By daylight, one bedraggled trooper remarked, “guns, horses, and men look[ed] as if the whole business had passed through a shower of yellow mud last night.” But Stuart’s spirits were undampened. At Warrenton he called a halt in front of the young woman’s house and had the captured quartermaster brought forward to collect the wagered bottle of wine for drinking in Libby Prison. Fitz Lee was in equally high spirits. Safely back across Waterloo Bridge that afternoon, he hailed an infantry brigadier and said he had something to show him. Stepping behind a large oak, he presently emerged wearing the cockaded hat and blue dress coat of a Federal major general. The infantryman roared with laughter, for the coat was so much too long for the bandy-legged Lee that the hem of it nearly covered his spurs. Stuart laughed hardest of all, and when he saw the name John Pope on the label inside the collar, he extended the joke by composing a dispatch addressed to the former owner: “You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for a fair exchange of the prisoners.” Although nothing came of this—the coat was sent instead to Richmond, where it was put on display in the State Library—Stuart was quite satisfied. “I have had my revenge out of Pope,” he told his wife.
Pope’s coat was a prize R. E. Lee could appreciate as well as the next man, not excepting his charade-staging nephew; but more important to him, by far, was the captured dispatch book which reached his headquarters the following morning, August 24. In it he found laid before him, as if he were reading over his adversary’s shoulder, a sequent and detailed account of the Federal build-up beyond the Rappahannock. In addition to Reno, whose two divisions had already joined, Pope had other forces close at hand, including one on its way from western Virgina by rail and canal boat. Most urgent, though, was the news that Porter, whose corps was the advance unit of McClellan’s army, had debarked at Aquia Creek three days ago and marched next day to Falmouth, which placed him within twenty miles of Pope’s left at Kelly’s Ford, five miles downstream from Rappahannock Station. He might have joined today—or yesterday, for that matter—along with Heintzelman, whose corps was reported steaming northward close behind him. “Forty-eight hours more and we can make you strong enough,” Halleck had wired Pope, and Pope had replied: “There need be no apprehension.” That, too, was three days ago, while Porter’s men were filing off their transports. The race was considerably nearer its finish than Lee had supposed.
In point of fact, it was over. Pope was already too strong and too securely based for Lee to engage him in a pitched battle with anything like certainty of the outcome. Unless he could maneuver him out of his present position, and by so doing gain the chance to fall on some exposed detachment, Pope would go unscathed. And unless Lee could do this quickly, he could not do it at all; for once McClellan’s whole army was on the scene, or even the greater part of it, the odds would be hopeless. Lee, then, had two choices, neither of which included standing still. He could retreat, or he could advance. To retreat would be to give up the piedmont and probably the Shenandoah Valley; the siege of Richmond, lately raised, would be renewed under conditions worse than those which had followed Joe Johnston’s retreat. That would not do at all. And yet to advance might also worsen matters, since Pope might retire on Fredericksburg and thereby hasten the concentration Lee was seeking to delay.
The gray-bearded general studied his map, and there he found what he thought might be the answer. Pope’s supply line, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, extended northeastward in his rear, so that to maneuver him in that direction would be to make him increase the distance between his present force and the troops coming ashore at Aquia Creek. Twice already Lee had tried to cut that artery: once with a blow aimed at Rappahannock Station, which had failed because Pope pulled back before it landed, and once more with another aimed at Catlett’s, which had failed because the rain soaked the bridge too wet for burning. Now he would try again, still farther up the line. If successful, this would not only provoke a longer retreat by threatening Pope’s main base of supplies, miles in his rear, but would also repeat the months-old Valley ruse of seeming to threaten Washington, which had yielded such rich dividends before. In reasoning thus, Lee was not discouraged by his two previous failures; rather, he resolved to profit by them. This time he would swing a heavier blow. Instead of using cavalry, he would use infantry. And he would use it in strength.
Infantry in this case meant Stonewall: not only because his three divisions were on the flank from which the march around Pope’s right would most conveniently begin, but also because he knew the country he would be traversing and his men had won their “foot cavalry” fame for long, fast marches such as the one now proposed. Conversely, Longstreet too would be assigned the kind of work he preferred and did best: holding, with his four divisions, the line of the Rappahannock against possible assault by Pope’s ten divisions across the way. This was risky in the extreme, both for Jackson and Old Pete. Pope was not only stronger now than both of them combined; he was apt to be heavily reinforced at any time, if indeed he had not been already. Furthermore, in dividing his army Lee was inviting disaster by reversing the basic military principle of concentration in the presence of a superior enemy. Yet he did not plan this out of contempt for Pope (Pope the blusterer, Pope the “miscreant” had handled his army with considerable skill throughout the five days since his escape from the constricting V); he planned it out of necessity. Unable on the one hand to stand still, or on the other to retire—either of which would do no more than postpone ruin and make it all the more ruinous when it inevitably came—Lee perceived that the only way to deal with an opponent he did not feel strong enough to fight was to maneuver him into retreat, and to do that he would have to divide his army. Thus the argument, pro and con, came full circle to one end: He would do it because there was nothing else to do. The very thing which made such a division seem overrash—Pope’s numerical superiority—was also its strongest recommendation, according to Lee, who later remarked: “The disparity … between the contending forces rendered the risks unavoidable.”
Today was Sunday. Shortly after noon, having made his decision, he rode to left-wing headquarters at Jeffersonton to give Stonewall his assignment. Jeffersonton was two miles back from the river, where a noisy artillery duel was in progress from opposite banks; Lee spoke above the rumble of the guns. The march would begin tomorrow, he said. Moving upstream for a crossing well above Pope’s right, Jackson would then swing northward behind the screen of the Bull Run Mountains, beyond which he would turn southeast through Thoroughfare Gap—the route he had followed thirteen months ago, coming down from the Valley to reach the field where he had won his nickname—for a strike at Pope’s supply line, far in his rear. No precise objective was assigned. Anywhere back there along the railroad would do, Lee said, just so Pope was properly alarmed for the safety of his communications, the welfare of his supply base, and perhaps for the security of Washington itself. Lee explained that he did not want a general engagement; he wanted Pope drawn away from the reinforcements being assembled on the lower Rappahannock. Once that was done, the two wings would reunite in the vicinity of Manassas and take advantage of any opening Pope afforded, either through negligence or panic.
Jackson began his preparations at once. After sending a topographical engineer ahead to select the best route around the Bull Run Mountains, he set his camps astir. The march would begin at earliest dawn, “with the utmost promptitude, without knapsacks”—without everything, in fact, except weapons, the ordnance train, and ambulances. Beef on the hoof would serve for food, supplemented by green corn pulled from fields along the way. Ewell would lead, followed by A. P. Hill; Winder’s division, now under Brigadier General W. B. Taliaferro, would bring up the rear, with orders to tread on the heels of Hill’s men if they lagged. During the night, Longstreet’s guns replaced Jackson’s along the Rappahannock south of Waterloo Bridge, and Lee, who would be left with 32,000 troops—including Stuart’s cavalry, which would join the flanking column the second day—prepared to stage whatever demonstrations would be needed to conceal from Pope the departure of Jackson’s 23,000.
What with the moving guns, the messengers coming and going, the night-long activity in the camps, Stonewall himself got little sleep before the dawn of August 25. He rose early, ate a light breakfast, and took a moment, now that the Sabbath was over, to write a brief note to his wife. In it he said nothing of the march that lay ahead; merely that “I have only time to tell you how much I love my little pet dove.” Presently he was in the saddle, doubling the column. The men looked up and sideways at him as he passed, the bill of his mangy cadet cap pulled down over his pale eyes. As usual, they did not know where they were going, only that there would most likely be fighting when they got there. Meanwhile, they did the marching and left the thinking to Old Jack. “Close up, men. Close up,” he said.
Ten days ago, still down on the Peninsula, preparing for the withdrawal he had unsuccessfully protested, McClellan had warned Halleck: “I don’t like Jackson’s movements. He will suddenly appear where least expected.”
This was not exactly news to Halleck, coming as it did on the heels of Banks’ repulse at Cedar Mountain. Besides, Old Brains had other problems on his mind: not the least of which was the situation in the West, where his carefully worked-out tactical dispositions seemed about to come unglued. Kirby Smith left Knoxville that same week, bound for Kentucky, and Bragg had his whole army at Chattanooga, apparently poised for a leap in the same direction. Lincoln was distressed, and so was Halleck. So, presently, was McClellan. Earlier, to encourage haste in the evacuation, Halleck had assured him: “It is my intention that you shall command all the troops in Virginia as soon as we can get them together.” McClellan’s spirits rose at the prospect. To Burnside, who arrived with further assurances of Halleck’s good will, he said as they stood beside the road down which his army was withdrawing to Fort Monroe: “Look at them, Burn. Did you ever see finer men? Oh, I want to see those men beside of Pope’s.” But there were subsequent delays, chiefly the result of a shortage of transports, and Halleck’s cries for haste once more grew strident: so much so, in fact, that McClellan felt obliged to take official exception to what he called his “tone.” Privately he protested to his wife that Halleck “did not even behave with common politeness; he is a bien mauvais sujet—he is not a gentleman.… I fear that I am very mad.”
All the same, he made what haste he could. Porter left for Aquia Creek on August 20, and Heintzelman left next day for Alexandria. Both were to join Pope at once, the former by moving up the left bank of the Rappahannock, the latter by moving down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. But Lee was across the Rapidan by now. “The forces of Burnside and Pope are hard-pressed,” Halleck wired, “and require aid as quickly as you can send it. Come yourself as soon as you can.” The bitter satisfaction McClellan found in this appeal was expressed in a letter to his wife: “Now they are in trouble they seem to want the ‘Quaker,’ the ‘procrastinator,’ the ‘coward,’ and the ‘traitor.’ Bien.” Two days later, Franklin followed Heintzelman to Alexandria, and Sumner embarked the following day to follow Porter to Aquia Creek. Four of the five corps were gone, leaving Keyes to man the Yorktown defenses: McClellan had answered Halleck’s cries for haste. But he no longer put any stock in any promises made him, either by the general in chief or by any other representative of the Administration. In fact, he told his wife as he left Old Point Comfort, August 23, “I take it for granted that my orders will be as disagreeable as it is possible to make them—unless Pope is beaten,” he added, “in which case they will want me to save Washington again. Nothing but their fears will induce them to give me any command of importance or to treat me otherwise than with discourtesy.”
Sure enough, when he got to Aquia next morning—Sunday—he found that Porter and Heintzelman had already been released to Pope, and when he wired for instructions Halleck replied: “You can either remain at Aquia or come to Alexandria, as you may deem best, so as to direct the landing of your troops.” In other words, it didn’t matter; the Young Napoleon was merely to serve as an expediter, dispatching the rest of his men to Pope as fast as they came ashore at those two points. He chose Alexandria, presumably to be close at hand for the call he believed would follow the calamity he expected. Monday and Tuesday were doubtful days; Pope’s scouts had spotted a column of “well-closed infantry” moving northward, up the far bank of the Rappahannock, and Pope reported Lee’s whole army bound for the Shenandoah Valley “by way of Luray and Front Royal.” Then Tuesday night the line went dead. All was silent beyond Manassas Junction, where there had been some sort of explosion.…
The next five days were smoke and flame; McClellan ran the gamut of emotions. With Porter and Heintzelman committed, he sent Franklin to join them, saying: “Go, and whatever may happen, don’t allow it to be said that the Army of the Potomac failed to do its utmost for the country.” Sumner followed. “You now have every man … within my reach,” McClellan told Halleck, requesting that “I may be permitted to go to the scene of battle with my staff, merely to be with my own men, if nothing more. They will fight none the worse for my being with them.” Halleck replied, “I cannot answer without seeing the President, as General Pope is in command, by his orders, of the department.” When McClellan asked where this left him, the answer came from the War Department: “General McClellan commands that portion of the Army of the Potomac that has not been sent forward to General Pope’s command.” In all, this amounted to nothing more than his staff and the handful of convalescents at Alexandria. Instead of being removed from command, as he had feared at the outset, he now perceived that his command had been removed from him.
He was left, he told his wife, “flat on my back without any command whatever.… I feel too blue and disgusted to write any more now, so I will smoke a cigar and try to get into a better humor.” It did no good. Far off, beyond Fairfax, he could hear the rumble of guns from a field where his soldiers were fighting under a man he despised and considered professionally incompetent. Unable to go, yet unable to sit still, doing nothing, he took up his pen. “They have taken all my troops from me! I have even sent off my personal escort and camp guard, and am here with a few orderlies and the aides. I have been listening to the sound of a great battle in the distance. My men engaged in it and I away! I never felt worse in my life.”
“Let us look before us,” Pope had said, “and not behind.” In taking advantage of this policy, obligingly announced for all to hear, Jackson not only fulfilled McClellan’s prediction that he would “suddenly appear where least expected,” but he did so—in accordance with Lee’s instructions—by landing squarely and emphatically astride those lines of retreat which Pope had said could be left “to take care of themselves.”
In point of fact, however sudden his appearance was to Pope, to his own men it was something else again, coming as it did at the end of two of the longest and hardest days of marching any 23,000 soldiers ever did. At the outset the two views coincided. Like Pope, whose lookouts promptly reported the upstream movement, when they first marched into Monday’s dawn they thought they were headed for another bloody game of hide-and-seek out in the Valley. That was fine with them. Rations had been scarce of late, and they recalled the largess of Commissary Banks. They swung on through the dust and heat, a long column of striding men whose uniforms, as one of their number later said, were “of that nondescript hue which time and all weathers give to ruins”: Jeffersonton to Amissville, then northward across the river to Orlean, halfway through the first day’s march, which would end just short of Salem, a station on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Where they would go from there they did not know. Nor did they seem to care. Approaching that place, with twenty-five leg-aching miles behind them, they forgot their weariness when they saw Jackson standing upon a large stone by the roadside, cap off, watching the sun turn red as it went down beyond the Blue Ridge. But when they cheered him, as was their custom, he made a startled gesture of protest and sent an officer to explain that the noise might give away their presence to the Yankees. So they raised their hats in mute salute as they swung past him, smiling, proud-eyed, silent except for the shuffle of feet in the dust. Flushed with pleasure, for their silence was more eloquent than cheers, Stonewall turned to his staff. “Who could not conquer with such troops as these?” he asked.
Wherever it was they were going, they knew next morning it was not to be the Valley; for at Salem they turned east toward White Plains, then southeast, following the railroad into the sunrise, blood red at first, then fiery in the broad notch of Thoroughfare Gap. That was the critical point. If it was held, there would be fighting and the loss of a large portion of the element of surprise. They quickened the step. Then word came down the column, Ewell to Hill to Taliaferro: the gap was empty, not a Federal in sight. They pressed on, eastward to Hay Market, then south-southeast to Gainesville, where they struck the Warrenton Turnpike, which led east-northeast from Pope’s position on the Rappahannock, traversing the scene of last year’s triumph on the plains of Manassas, across Bull Run at Stone Bridge, then on to Centerville and Alexandria. Tactically—so far, at least, as it had been kept from the marchers themselves—the secret was more or less out. “Disaster and shame lurk in the rear,” Pope had said. Now Jackson lurked there, too.
It became obvious at once, though, that he intended to do a good deal more than simply lurk there. Stuart having arrived with all the cavalry—Lee had released him late the night before; he had ridden hard to catch up by midafternoon, when the head of the infantry column got to Gainesville—Jackson fanned the troopers out to the right, protecting the flank in the direction of the Rappahannock, and pushed on southward across the turnpike. Six miles ahead was Bristoe Station, where the Orange & Alexandria crossed Broad Run; destruction of the bridge there would sever Pope’s supply line for days. “Push on, men. Push on,” he told the marchers. But this was easier said than done. They were showing the effects of strain, and there was much less talk and horseplay up and down the column. Nearing Bristoe they had covered more than fifty miles, most of it in blazing heat and on secondary roads, with little to eat but green corn and apples along the way. Still, now that the goal was nearly in sight, according to one admiring cavalryman, “the feeling seemed to be a dread with each one that he would give out and not be there to see the fun.” Many did give out, especially during this last half-dozen miles. As usual, however, though the column dribbled blown and blistered stragglers in its wake, Stonewall showed no pity for either the fainting or the stalwart, whatever their rank. Just short of Bristoe he dismounted and went onto the porch of a roadside cabin to wait for the column to close. He sat in a split-bottom chair, tilted back against the wall, and fell asleep. Presently a staff officer arrived and shouted him awake: “General Blank failed to put a picket at the crossroads! and the following brigade took the wrong road!” The eyelids lifted; two pale blue chinks appeared in the thin-lipped mask. “Put him under arrest and prefer charges,” Jackson snapped. The eyelids dropped and he was back asleep at once.
The lead brigade hit Bristoe just at sunset. Coming forward on the run, the whooping graybacks overpowered the startled guards and were taking charge when they heard the approaching rumble of a northbound train. Hurriedly they threw crossties on the track and began a frantic attempt to unbolt a rail. Too late: the engine was upon them, scattering ties and men, then clattering out of sight in the gathering dusk—doubtless to give warning up the line. Their disappointment was relieved, however, by news that this was the hour when empty supply trains made their run, one after another from Pope’s advance depots around Warrenton, back to Manassas and Alexandria. When the next prize came along the raiders were ready. Riflemen lining one flank of the right-of-way gave the locomotive a volley as it thundered past, struck an open switch, and plunged with half its cars down the embankment, where it struck with a gaudy eruption of red coals and hissing steam. Delighted with this effect, the Confederates gathered round and were pointing with elation at a bullet-pocked portrait of Lincoln on the steam dome—the engine was called The President—when the whistle of a third train was heard. It rammed into the cars left on the track, creating another rackety tableau of splintered wood and twisted iron: whereupon still a fourth whistle sounded. But while the watchers were getting set to enjoy another eruption of sparks and steam, they heard instead a screech of brakes as the locomotive stopped, then backed rapidly away and out of sight. The raiders cursed the engineer for his vigilance. Now the alarm would be sounded below as well as above the captured station; the fireworks fun was at an end.
Though he had enjoyed all this as much as anyone, now that it was over Jackson wasted no time on regret that it could not have lasted longer. Instead, he put his troops to work at once on the job for which he had brought them here in the first place: destruction of the Broad Run railroad bridge. While this was being done he stood beside a fire, hastily kindled for light, and began to interrogate one of the captured engineers. Across the way, a Federal civilian was laid out on the ground; a middle-aged man—probably a politician, for he had come down from Washington on a visit to Pope’s army—he had suffered a broken leg in one of the train wrecks. Hearing who his captors were, and that their commander was just on the opposite side of the campfire, he asked to be lifted, despite the pain, for a look at the famed rebel. When the soldiers obliged, he saw beyond the dancing flames a stoop-shouldered figure in outsized boots and road-colored clothes slouched with a crumpled cadet cap pulled far down over his nose. For half a minute the civilian stared at the plain-looking man his captors assured him was the gallant Stonewall, scourge of the Yankee nation. Then, anticipation having given way to incredulity, which in turn gave way to disillusionment, he said with a groan of profound disgust: “O my God! Lay me down.”
Jackson himself knew nothing of this: which was why he never understood the basic implication of the expression used by his soldiers in almost every conceivable situation from now on, whether confronted with an issue of meager rations or a charging Union line: “O my God! Lay me down!” In any case, even if he had heard it, he had no time for laughter. Interrogation of the engineer, along with other captives, had divulged that Pope’s main base of supplies, four miles up the line at Manassas, was lightly guarded and wide open to attack. How long it would remain so, now that the alarm had been sounded in both directions, was another matter. Jackson decided to take no chance on being shut off from this richest of all prizes. Leg-weary though the men were, some of them would have to push on through the darkness to Manassas, block the arrival of reinforcements sent by rail from Alexandria, and hold the place until their comrades joined them in the morning. Two of Ewell’s regiments drew the duty; or, more strictly speaking, were volunteered for it by their commander, Brigadier General Isaac Trimble. It was Trimble, a sixty-year-old Virginia-born Kentucky-raised Marylander, who had wanted to make a twilight charge up the blasted slope of Malvern Hill the month before; Stonewall had restrained him then, but he remained undaunted; “Before this war is over,” he declared as the army started northward, “I intend to be a major general or a corpse.” He set off into the night, riding out of Bristoe at the head of his two foot-sore regiments, a burly white-haired West Pointer with a drooping black mustache. On second thought, Jackson sent Stuart and his troopers along to support him. Then the rest of the command bedded down, too weary to worry overmuch about the fact that they were sleeping between an army of 75,000 bluecoats and the capital whose safety was supposedly that army’s first concern.
Early next morning, August 27, leaving the rest of Ewell’s division to guard the Broad Run crossing in his rear, Jackson moved on Manassas with the troops of Hill and Taliaferro. The sight that awaited them there was past the imagining of Stonewall’s famished tatterdemalions. Acres—a square mile, in fact—of supplies of every description were stacked in overwhelming abundance, collected here against the day when the armies of Pope and McClellan combined for another advance on Richmond. Newly constructed warehouses overflowed with rations, quartermaster goods, and ordnance stores. Two spur tracks, half a mile long each, were jammed with more than a hundred brand-new boxcars, similarly freighted. Best of all, from the point of view of the luxury-starved raiders, sutler wagons parked hub-to-hub were packed with every delicacy their vanished owners had thought might tempt a payday soldier’s jaded palate. There it all was, spread out before the butternut horde as if the mythical horn of plenty had been upended here, its contents theirs for the taking. So they supposed; but when they broke ranks, surging forward, they found that Jackson, frugal as always, had foreseen their reaction and had moved to forestall it by placing Trimble’s men on guard to hold them back. For once, though, he had underrated their aggressive instincts. Veterans of harder fights, with infinitely smaller rewards at the end, they broke through the cordon and fell on the feast of good things. Canteens were filled with molasses, haversacks with coffee; pockets bulged with cigars, jackknives, writing paper, handkerchiefs, and such. However, the chief object of search, amid the embarrassment of riches, was whiskey. This too their commander had foreseen, and by his orders the guards staved in the barrels and shattered the demijohns; whereupon the looters dropped to their hands and knees, scooping and sipping at the pools and rivulets before the liquor soaked into the earth or drained away. Some, more abstemious, were satisfied with loaves of unfamiliar light-bread, which they ate like cake. Others, preferring a still richer diet, found pickled oysters and canned lobster more to their taste, spooning it up with grimy fingers and washing it down with bottles of Rhine wine.
Off to the east, a troublesome Federal battery had been banging away in protest all this while. Jackson sent one of his own to attend to it, but presently word came back that enemy infantry was crossing the Bull Run railroad bridge and forming for attack. Most of Hill’s division was moved out quickly to meet the threat, which turned out to be a brigade of four New Jersey regiments sent down by rail from Alexandria under a zealous and badly informed commander, Brigadier General George W. Taylor. His orders were to save the bridge, but he decided to press on to the junction itself and drive away the raiders, whom he mistook for cavalry. The Jerseymen came on in style, green and eager, not knowing that they were up against the largest and probably the hardest-fighting division in Lee’s whole army. Jackson opened on them with his guns—prematurely it seemed to Little Powell’s men, waiting with cocked rifles for the interrupters of their feast to come within butchering distance. But the bluecoats took their long-range losses and kept coming, bayonets fixed and fire in their eyes.
Then Stonewall did an unfamiliar thing. Admiring their valor, which he knew was based on ignorance—the charge, he said later, “was made with great spirit and determination and under a leader worthy of a better cause”—he called a cease-fire and rode out in front of the guns, waving a handkerchief and shouting for the Federals to surrender and be spared extermination. By way of reply, one attacker took deliberate aim and sent a bullet whistling past him. Cured of his lapse into leniency, Jackson rode back and ordered the fire resumed. By now the Jerseymen were nearer, and this time it was as if they struck a trip-wire. Suddenly demoralized, they turned and scampered, devil-take-the-hindmost. Their losses were surprisingly light, considering the danger to which their rashness had exposed them: 200 captured and 135 killed or wounded, including their commander, who, as he was being carried dying to the rear, appealed to his men to rally “and for God’s sake … prevent another Bull Run.”
They paid him no mind; nor did Jackson. Already burdened with more spoils than he could handle—victim, as it were, of the law of diminishing utility—for once he was unconcerned about pursuit. The whole comic-opera affair was over before noon. After burning the railroad bridge to insure against further interruption from that direction, he brought Hill’s men back to the junction, where some measure of order had been restored in their absence. It was maintained, at least for a while. While the plunderers were held at bay, the ambulances and ordnance wagons—all the rolling stock he had—were filled with such Federal stores as were most needed, principally medical supplies. Once this was done, the rest were thrown open to the troops, who fell upon them whooping, their appetites whetted by the previous unauthorized foray. Painful as it was to Stonewall, watching the improvident manner in which his scarecrow raiders snatched up one luxurious armload only to cast it aside for another, he was reconciled to the waste by the knowledge that what was rejected would have to be given to the flames. Word had come from Ewell that he was under attack at Bristoe from the opposite direction; Jackson knew the time had come to abandon his exposed position for one in which he could await, with some degree of security, the arrival of Longstreet and reconsolidation of the army under Lee.
By now, of course, Pope had learned the nature of the explosion in his rear. Instead of heading for the Shenandoah Valley, as had been supposed when the signal station reported a well-closed gray column moving north two days ago, Lee had divided his army and sent half of it swinging around the Bull Run Mountains for a strike at Manassas; that half of it was there now, under Jackson. But Pope was not dismayed. Far from it; he was exultant, and with cause. He had forty brigades of infantry on hand, including a dozen of McClellan’s, with others on the way. It seemed to him that Lee, who had less than thirty brigades—fourteen in one direction, fifteen in another, more than twenty airline miles apart, with 75,000 Federals on the alert between the two segments—had committed tactical suicide. Hurrying to Bristoe, where Hooker’s division of Heintzelman’s corps was skirmishing with the enemy, Pope arrived as night was falling and found that the rebels, soundly thrashed according to Hooker, had retreated across Broad Run. Encouraged by today’s success, he decided to bring up six more divisions and with them crush Jackson’s three before the sun went down tomorrow. A depot of supplies, however vast, seemed a small price to pay for bait when it brought such a catch within his reach.
To Phil Kearny, commanding Heintzelman’s other division at Warrenton Junction, went a wire: “At the very earliest blush of dawn push forward … with all speed to this place.… Jackson, A. P. Hill, and Ewell are in front of us.… I want you here at day-dawn, if possible, and we shall bag the whole crowd. Be prompt and expeditious, and never mind wagon trains or roads till this affair is over.” To Reno, at Greenwich with Burnside’s two divisions, went another: “March at the earliest dawn of day … on Manassas Junction. Jackson, Ewell, and A. P. Hill are between Gainesville and that place, and if you are prompt and expeditious we shall bag the whole crowd.… As you value success be off at the earliest blush of dawn.” A third wire went to McDowell, whose three divisions were helping to hold the line of the Rappahannock: “Jackson, Ewell, and A. P. Hill are between Gainesville and Manassas Junction. We had a severe fight with them today, driving them back several miles along the railroad. If you will march promptly and rapidly at the earliest dawn of day upon Manassas Junction we shall bag the whole crowd.… Be expeditious, and the day is our own.”
Northeastward, exploding ammunition dumps imitated the din of a great battle and the night sky was lurid with the reflection of a square mile of flames: Jackson’s graybacks were evidently staging a high revel, oblivious to the destruction being plotted by their adversary, five short miles away. But next morning, after fording Broad Run unopposed and marching past the wreckage at Bristoe Station, when Pope reached Manassas all he found was the charred evidence of what one of his staff colonels called “the recent rebel carnival.” The scene was one of waste and desolation. “On the railroad tracks and sidings stood the hot and smoking remains of what had recently been trains of cars laden with ordnance and commissary stores intended for our army. As far as the eye could reach, the plain was covered with boxes, barrels, cans, cooking utensils, saddles, sabers, muskets, and military equipments generally; hard bread and corn pones, meat, salt, and fresh beans, blankets, clothes, shoes, and hats, from brand-new articles, just from the original packages, to the scarcely recognizable exuviae of the rebels, who had made use of the opportunity to renew their toilets.” Of the revelers themselves there was no sign. Nor was there agreement among the returning guards and sutlers as to the direction in which they had disappeared. Some said one way, some another. As far as Pope could tell, the earth had swallowed them up.
As things now stood, last night’s orders would result in nothing more than a convergence on a vacuum. Presently, however, reports began to come in, pinpointing the gray column first in one place, then another, most of them quite irreconcilable. Pope sifted the conflicting evidence, rejecting this, accepting that, and arrived at the conviction that Stonewall was concentrating his three divisions at Centerville. Revised orders went out accordingly, canceling the convergence on Manassas; Centerville was now the place. If they would still be expeditious, the day would still be Pope’s.
His exuberance and zest were undiminished; he kept his mind, if not his eye, on the prize within his reach. But for others under him—particularly the dust-eating soldiers in the ranks, left hungry by the destruction of their commissary stores—the chase, if it could be called such, had already begun to pall. Marched and countermarched since the “earliest blush of dawn” in pursuit of phantoms, they were being mishandled and they knew it. The very terrain was of evil memory. It seemed to them that they were heading for a repetition of last year’s debacle on these same rolling plains, under some of these same commanders. McDowell, for example; “I’d rather shoot McDowell than Jackson,” men were saying. Now as then, they turned on him, muttering imprecations. Nothing about him escaped suspicion, even his hat, a bamboo-and-canvas affair he had invented to keep his scalp cool in the Virginia heat. They suspected that it was a signaling device, to be used for communicating with the rebels or as an identification to keep him from being shot by mistake. “That basket,” they called it, contemptuous not only of the helmet, but also of the general it shaded. “Pope has his headquarters in the saddle, and McDowell his head in a basket.”
All through the long hot afternoon of August 28 Pope kept groping, like the “it” in a game of blindman’s buff, arms outstretched, fingers spread, combing the landscape for the ubiquitous, elusive rebel force: to no avail. Riding into Centerville at sunset, in advance of most of the twelve divisions he had slogging the dusty roads—all, that is, but the two with Banks, which, being still unrecovered from the shock of Cedar Mountain, had been left behind to guard the army trains—he found that he had ordered another convergence on another vacuum. The graybacks had been there, all right, but they were there no longer. They had vanished. Once more it was as if the earth had swallowed them, except that this time he would have to look for them in darkness, with troops worn down by fourteen hours of fruitless marching. Pope felt the first twinges of dismay. Not because of fear; he was afraid of nothing, not even Stonewall; but because the time allotted for the destruction of Lee’s army, wing by isolated wing, was running out. Such fear as he felt was that Jackson would make his escape and rejoin Longstreet, who by now would be moving to meet him.
Pope’s dismay was short-lived, however. After nightfall, two dispatches reached him that changed everything and sent his spirits soaring higher than ever. The first informed him that Longstreet’s column, after penetrating Thoroughfare Gap, had been driven back to the west side of Bull Run Mountain. This afforded considerable relief, allowing as it did additional time in which to catch the rebel host divided. But the best news of all came just before 10 o’clock. Late that afternoon, marching as ordered toward Centerville, one of McDowell’s divisions had found Jackson lurking in the woods beside the Warrenton Turnpike, two miles short of Stone Bridge, and had flushed him. There on the field of last year’s battle, Pope wired Halleck, “a severe fight took place, which was terminated by darkness. The enemy was driven back at all points, and thus the affair rests.”
Determined not to let it rest there long, he sent peremptory orders to the commanders of his five converging corps for the execution of a plan he improvised, then and there, for the absolute destruction of his just-found adversary. McDowell and Sigel, with 30,000 men, would attack at dawn from the south and west, blocking any possible withdrawal by way of Thoroughfare Gap, while Heintzelman, Porter, and Reno, with another 30,000, would attack from the east: twin hammers whose concerted blows would pound to a pulp the 23,000 butternut marauders, pinned to the anvil by their own commander. Pope’s instructions were explicit: “Assault him vigorously at daylight in the morning,” Exultant—and with cause; Jackson’s 14 gray brigades were about to be mauled simultaneously by 34 in blue, 17 from one direction, 17 from another—he added: “I see no possibility of his escape.”
Stoutly conceived though the plan was, and stoutly though he strove to put it into execution, Pope was again the victim of several misconceptions. For one thing, Jackson was not trapped; nor was he trying to “escape.” He very much wanted to be where he was, and he very much hoped that Pope could be persuaded to attack him, whatever the odds. In fact, if he could have been at Federal headquarters, with control over the messages coming and going, he scarcely would have changed a line in a single one of them. His luck was in and he knew it—the old Valley luck, by which even his worst errors worked to his advantage. The night march out of Manassas, for example:
When Ewell came up from Bristoe about sunset, having disengaged from the skirmish with Hooker’s division across Broad Run, Stonewall gave these late arrivers a chance at the fag end of the feast—“What we got was … not of a kind to invigorate,” one cannoneer grumbled, “consisting as it did of hard-tack, pickled oysters, and canned stuff generally”—then put all three divisions in motion while the rear guard set fire to the picked-over wreckage left behind. What followed, as the troops slogged more or less northward in three columns, looking back over their shoulders at the spreading glow of flames, was one of the worst executed marches in the history of his command. Heavy-stomached, with bulging haversacks and pockets, the men fell by the wayside or crawled under bushes to sleep off their excesses of food and drink. The result was confusion and a great deal of lost time as the file-closers probed the countryside, rounding them up and persuading them to fall back into column. Taliaferro did best, moving almost due north up the Sudley Springs road to Groveton, the designated point of concentration, where that road intersected the Warrenton Turnpike. Hill did worst; he went all the way to Centerville, then swung west. Ewell, following Hill for a time, crossed Bull Run at Blackburn’s Ford, then recrossed it at Stone Bridge, Hill coming along somewhere behind. Morning found the three divisions badly scattered and dangerously exposed; it was midday before they were reunited at Groveton. For this there were various causes—Jackson’s sketchy instructions, inefficient guides, the droves of stragglers—but even this blundering performance worked to Stonewall’s advantage, providing as it did the basis for the conflicting Federal reports of his whereabouts, which led Pope off on a tangential pursuit.
Whatever blame he deserved for the confusion in all three columns along the way, Jackson had chosen their destination with care and daring. A rapid withdrawal to rejoin Lee beyond the mountains was in order, but it was not Stonewall’s way to turn his back on a situation, no matter how risky, so long as possible benefits remained within his reach. Tomorrow or the next day, Longstreet would be coming down through Thoroughfare Gap or up the Warrenton Turnpike. At Groveton, Jackson knew from last year’s extended stay in the area, there was an excellent covered position in which to await Old Pete’s arrival by either route, and if the pressure grew too great his line of retreat would be reasonably secure. Meanwhile, the Federals—or, as he preferred to express it, “a kind Providence”—might afford him a chance at the infliction of another “terrible wound.” About midday, when he finally got his scattered divisions back together, he put the men in position just north of the turnpike, behind a low ridge and under cover of some woods. One soldier later remembered that they were “packed [in there] like herring in a barrel.” They stacked arms and lounged about, all 23,000 of them (minus stragglers) snoozing, playing cards, and munching at more of the good things they had in their haversacks by courtesy of Commissary Pope. The bands were silent; the troops were instructed not to shout; but as that same soldier remembered it, there were “no restrictions as to laughing and talking … and the woods sounded like the hum of a beehive in the warm sunshine.”
Jackson himself remained on the ridge, which afforded a clear view of the pike in both directions. When a report arrived that a strong Union column was advancing from Gainesville, he moved Taliaferro and Ewell two miles west and posted them in the woods adjacent to the pike for a surprise attack on the flank of the passing bluecoats. Nothing came of this; the column turned off south toward Manassas before it came abreast. Stonewall was cross and restless, reminding one observer of “an explosive missile, an unlucky spark applied to which would blow you sky high.” Lee had told him to avoid a general engagement, but he did not like to see the Federals escape the ambush he had laid. Besides, he knew now that reinforcements from the Peninsula were at Alexandria—better than 30,000 of them, in addition to the two corps already joined. If Pope withdrew in that direction, the combined might of his and McClellan’s forces would be too great for a strike at them, even after Lee arrived with Longstreet. So Jackson continued to patrol the ridge, trotting back and forth on his horse, peering up and down the pike. His staff and several brigade and regimental commanders sat their mounts at a respectful distance, not wanting to come near him in his present frame of mind or take a chance on interrupting his prayers that Providence would send another blue column into the trap the first had avoided.
Along toward sunset, his prayers were answered after the flesh. A well-closed Federal column was approaching, trudging hard up the turnpike in the direction of Stone Bridge, flankers out. Jackson rode down off the ridge for a closer look and trotted back and forth, within easy musket range of the bluecoats, who gave him no more attention than a casual rebel cavalryman deserved. Back on the ridge, the officers watched in horror and fascination. “We could almost tell his thoughts by his movements,” one declared. “Sometimes he would halt, then trot on briskly, halt again, wheel his horse, and pass again along the [flank] of the marching column.” They thought they knew what he would do, and presently he did it. When the head of the blue column drew abreast, he whirled and galloped back toward the group on the ridge. “Here he comes, by God,” one shouted. Jackson pulled up, touched his cap, and said calmly: “Bring your men up, gentlemen.” At this, they turned and rode fast toward the woods where the infantry was waiting. “The men had been watching their officers with much interest,” the same observer remarked, “and when they wheeled and dashed toward them they knew what it meant, and from the woods arose a hoarse roar like that from cages of wild animals at the scent of blood.”
The artillery led off. Three batteries emerged from the woods, went into position in the open, and began to slam away at the compact column on the pike. As the cannonade got under way, Taliaferro’s men swarmed down the slope, yelling as they came, the battle flags of the Stonewall Brigade gleaming blood-red in the fading light. The result should have been panic, for the bluecoats taken thus unawares were from Rufus King’s division—specifically, John Gibbon’s brigade of four regiments, three from Wisconsin and one from Indiana—one of the largest but also one of the greenest in Pope’s conglomerate command. However, instead of panicking at this abrupt baptism of fire, the Westerners wheeled to meet the attackers and stopped them in their tracks with massed volleys. Gibbon was regular army, loyal to the Union despite the fact that three of his North Carolina brothers went with the Stars and Bars. Supported by two regiments sent forward from Abner Doubleday’s brigade, he handled his troops skillfully, holding off Taliaferro, who presently was reinforced by two brigades from Ewell. What ensued, first by the red glare of sunset, then on through dusk and twilight into darkness, with 2800 Federals facing nearly twice as many Confederates, was one of the hardest close-quarter fights of the whole war.
Jackson did not attempt to maneuver. Contrary to his usual practice once the advance had stalled, he was content to let the weight of numbers settle the issue. In point of fact, however, neither the pressure nor the savagery of his veterans settled anything at all. If the Wisconsin and Indiana farm boys were in a hopeless predicament, outnumbered nearly two to one by fighters whose fame was the highest in either army, they did not seem to recognize the odds. Experience had afforded them nothing by way of comparison; for all they knew, combat was supposed to be like this. The opposing lines stood face to face, parade-style, and slugged it out for two solid hours. Gibbon, who at thirty-five had a long career ahead of him, said afterwards that this was the heaviest infantry fire he ever heard, and Taliaferro referred to the engagement as “one of the most terrific conflicts that can be conceived of.”
Finally the firing slacked; by 9 o’clock it died away, by mutual consent. The Federals withdrew across the turnpike, unpursued. More than a thousand of them had fallen, well over a third of the number engaged; the 2d Wisconsin, which had gone into the fight 500 strong, came out with 202, having begun tonight to establish the record it would set, before the war was over, by having more of its members killed in combat than any other regiment in the U.S. Army. Gibbon and Doubleday wondered what to do. Their latest orders called for a march on Centerville, but if the two-hour fight proved nothing else, it certainly had proved that the way was blocked in that direction. King was sick in an ambulance; no one knew where McDowell was. (He was in fact lost in the woods, having strayed from the pike in the darkness, and would not himself know where he was till morning.) So Gibbon and Doubleday, conferring with the ailing King, decided that the best thing to do would be to swing on down to Manassas, the original objective, taking such of their wounded along as could be recovered from the field. Grass-green three hours ago, the western soldiers fell back in and set off down the road as veterans. They were known as the Black Hat Brigade, Gibbon having seen to it that they were equipped with nonregulation black felt hats. In time, the rebels too would know them by that name; “Here come them damn black hat fellers!” the gray pickets would yell. But presently they changed it. Within a month they were calling themselves the Iron Brigade.
Few men anywhere were inclined to question their right to call themselves by any name they fancied—least of all Taliaferro’s and Ewell’s, who had suffered about as heavily as the troops they sought to ambush. The Stonewall Brigade took 635 soldiers into the twilight conflict and came out with 425, a ghost of the proud 3,000-man command that won its nom de guerre on nearby Henry Hill the year before and then passed through the glory of the Valley Campaign and the carnage of the Seven Days. Some of its most famous regiments were reduced to the size of a small company; the 27th Virginia, for example, was down to a scant two dozen men by the time the firing stopped. Murderous as these figures were, they told but part of the story, for they included a high percentage of officers of all ranks. The 2d Virginia had only one captain and one lieutenant left with the colors, and others were stripped almost as bare of leaders. Nor were the losses restricted to those of field and company grade. This fight brought down generals, too, including two of the three ranking just under Jackson himself. Taliaferro, who had succeeded Winder less than three weeks ago, was thrice wounded. He kept on his feet till the melee ended, but then, bled white, was carried off the field. His successor, Brigadier General William E. Starke—a former New Orleans cotton man, professionally untrained in arms—had been promoted on the eve of Cedar Mountain and had led a brigade in action for the first time tonight. Now suddenly he found himself in command of the most famous of all Confederate divisions.
The other high-ranking casualty was Ewell. Unable to resist the lure of close-up combat, he had gone forward to direct a charge by the 21st Georgia. As he knelt, squinting under the smoke for a glimpse of the enemy line, several of the Georgians called out proudly: “Here’s General Ewell, boys!”: whereupon the Federals, hearing the cheering, cut loose with heavy volleys in that direction. The regiment scattered, taking such losses here and elsewhere that it emerged from the battle with only 69 of its 242 men unhurt. Old Bald Head himself was found on the field when the fight was over, unconscious from loss of blood one knee badly shattered by a minie. The surgeons assessed the damage and pronounced the verdict: amputation. Apparently he was out of the war for good. His successor was Alexander R. Lawton, who had held the rank of brigadier for sixteen months—longer than any other general in the army—apparently because Jackson, who had by-passed him in favor of Winder, did not consider him competent for divisional command. Now, as a result of attrition, his seniority could no longer be denied.
Any fight that cost the Confederacy the services of the profane and eccentric Ewell, along with those of the fast-developing Taliaferro and nearly a thousand other veterans of all ranks, could scarcely be called an unclouded victory, no matter who held the field when the smoke cleared. Moreover, Jackson himself had displayed symptoms of a relapse into tactical lethargy once the thing was under way. Yet if he felt either dismay or dissatisfaction at being thus deprived of two of his three chief lieutenants—all, in fact, but the one he trusted least, the thin-skinned and erratic A. P. Hill—he showed no signs of it, any more than he showed signs of apprehension for what Pope would surely try to do to him tomorrow. He seemed in fact, according to one of his soldiers, “calm as a May morning.” What was left of the night he devoted to sleep. Purposely, as if with a shout of Boo! in the game of blindman’s buff he was playing, he had attracted Pope’s attention, hoping to hold him there by absorbing his attacks until Lee arrived with Longstreet and made possible a shift to the offensive he preferred.
Longstreet was nearer than Jackson knew: near enough, even, to have heard the tearing rattle of musketry in the twilight west of Groveton, six miles off, and to wonder at the silence that ensued. For Lee, who was with the approaching column, this was one more enigma to be added to the many that had fretted him since Stonewall marched away, four days ago. The first day had been spent continuing the artillery demonstration along the Rappahannock. That night, after wiring Davis to ask if more troops could be spared from the Richmond defenses, he sent Stuart off with all the cavalry. Next morning, August 26, he continued the cannonade, hoping to keep Pope’s attention fixed on his front while Jackson moved around his flank to strike his rear. By midday, however, there were signs that the Federals were beginning to pull back: which might or might not mean that the ruse had been detected. Lee sent for Longstreet. The time had come to reunite the two wings of the army, he said, and he left to him the choice of routes, either up the Warrenton Pike or roundabout through Salem. Old Pete chose the latter. Leaving Major General R. H. Anderson’s division, formerly Huger’s, to hold the fords and mask the movement, he set out that afternoon with his other three divisions—Hood’s, reinforced by Shanks Evans, whose brigade had come up from South Carolina; Brigadier General D. R. Jones’, formerly half of Magruder’s; and Longstreet’s own, now split in two, under Brigadier Generals Cadmus Wilcox and James Kemper. This gave him, in effect, five divisions, each with three brigades; 32,000 men in all.
He made eleven miles before bivouacking near Orlean after nightfall, and by noon of the following day the head of the column had passed through Salem, matching the performance of Stonewall’s fabled marchers over these same roads, thirty-six hours ago. That was gratifying indeed. Even more so, however, were two dispatches Lee received before going into bivouac on the outskirts of White Plains. The first was from Jackson, informing him that he had taken Bristoe and Manassas the night before. He was concentrating now at the latter place, he added, squarely in Pope’s rear, and saw no evidence, so far, that the Federals were massing against him. The second welcome dispatch, brought by a courier from the opposite direction, was from Davis, replying to Lee’s request for reinforcements. They were on the way, the President told him: Wade Hampton’s cavalry brigade and two divisions of infantry under Harvey Hill and Major General Lafayette McLaws, the latter having been assigned the other half of Magruder’s old command. Howls of protest might ordinarily be expected when his critics learned that the seat of government was being stripped of defenders, Davis said, but “confidence in you overcomes the view which would otherwise be taken of the exposed condition of Richmond, and the troops retained for the defense of the capital are surrendered to you on a new request.”
Lee’s anxiety, both for the present and the future, was considerably relieved. In addition to the badly needed brigade of cavalry—he had none at all for the screening of Longstreet’s column; riding point that morning near Salem, he and his staff had barely avoided capture by a roving Federal squadron—the arrival of the promised ten brigades of infantry would add 17,000 veteran bayonets to his army. That would by no means even the odds Pope and Burnside and McClellan could bring to bear, combined, but it would at any rate reduce them to the vicinity of two to one: 150,000 vs 72,000. If the present odds were less heartening—McClellan, after all, might be with Pope already—in other respects the situation appeared quite promising. Reinforcements on the way, Jackson astride the railroad in Pope’s rear, the main Union supply base up in flames: all this was much, besides which it held out interesting possibilities for maneuver. Manassas being just twenty-two miles from White Plains, Longstreet’s present bivouac, Lee could reasonably expect to have the two wings of his army reunited by tomorrow night, prepared to undertake the completion of the “suppression” already begun. Before dawn, more good news arrived. Jackson informed him by courier that he was withdrawing from his exposed position at Manassas and would concentrate at Groveton, thus reducing by three full miles the interval between himself and Longstreet.
Refreshed by sleep, Old Pete’s veterans swung off into a rising sun that seemed destined to shine today on a reunited Army of Northern Virginia. Only one natural obstacle lay in their path: Thoroughfare Gap. If the Yankees held it in strength there would be the delay of an uphill fight or a roundabout march, either of which would throw the schedule out of kilter. This seemed unlikely, though, since Jackson’s couriers had been coming through unhindered, and presently another arrived, bringing further assurance that the pass was open and that his chief had reached Groveton, unmolested and unobserved, and was concentrating his troops in the woods overlooking the turnpike at that place. At 3 o’clock, topping the final rise that brought the gap into view, Longstreet’s lead division pushed rapidly forward. Back with the main body, Lee presently heard from up ahead the reverberant clatter of musketry in the gorge. “Its echoes were wonderful,” one staff officer later recalled. “A gun fired in its depths gave forth roars fit to bring down the skies.”
Lee’s reaction was less esthetic, for this of all sounds was the one he least wanted to hear. Then came the message that confirmed his fears: The Federals not only held the pass itself, they also had a reserve line posted on a dominant ridge beyond. John Pope had turned the tables, it seemed. Instead of panicking when he found Stonewall interposed between himself and Washington, the Union commander apparently had seized the initiative and posted his superior force between the two Confederate wings, preparing to crush them in sequence.
This was the darkest possible view. But Longstreet—“that undismayed warrior,” his chief of staff afterwards called him, adding that he was “like a rock in steadiness when sometimes in battle the world seemed flying to pieces”—put his troops at once in motion to test the validity of such gloom. While Jones, supported by Kemper, kept up the pressure dead ahead, Hood probed for an opening near at hand and Wilcox set out for Hopewell Gap, three miles north. These dispositions took time. Near sunset, during lulls in the firing here at the pass, Lee heard from the direction of Groveton the mutter of distant musketry, mixed in with the grumble of guns. This was presently blotted out, however, by the stepped-up firing close at hand: Hood’s men had found a cleft in the ridge and were on the Federal flank. Promptly the bluecoats retreated, unplugging the gap and withdrawing from the ridge beyond. (They were only a single division, after all, sent by McDowell on his own initiative, shortly before he wandered off and got himself lost in the woods.) Jones and Kemper marched through unopposed, joining Hood on the eastern slope, and the three divisions settled down to await the arrival of Wilcox, who had likewise penetrated Hopewell Gap.
Now that their own guns were silent, they heard again the growl and rumble of those near Groveton, half a dozen miles away. The uproar swelled to climax. Then it sank. At 9 o’clock it stopped. This might mean almost anything; all that was certain was that Jackson had been engaged. Whether he had won or lost—whether, indeed, that wing of the army still existed—they would know tomorrow. Whichever it was, it was over now. After sending a courier to inform Stonewall that the main body was safely through the pass, Lee told Longstreet to bed his men down for a good night’s sleep in preparation for a fast march at sunup.
Friday, August 29, Hood’s troops took the lead, marching so fast that their commander later reported proudly, “General Longstreet sent me orders, two or three times, to halt, since the army was unable to keep within supporting distance of my forces.” There was need for haste. Ahead, the guns were booming again and a great white bank of smoke was piling up against the hot, bright blue, windless sky. Comforting though this was as proof that Jackson’s men were still alive and kicking, it also demonstrated Pope’s determination to destroy them before reinforcements got there. The Texans pushed on through Hay Market, raising a red cloud of dust with their feet, then down to Gainesville, where they struck the Warrenton Turnpike and swung left, advancing another three miles toward the ground-jarring thunder of guns, until they came upon Stonewall’s right flank, above Groveton. It was now about 10 o’clock: Lee’s army was reunited. Hood went into position north of the pike, establishing contact, and the other divisions filed into position on his right, extending the line generally southward, across the pike and down toward the Manassas Gap Railroad. From left to right, Longstreet’s order of battle was Hood, Kemper, Jones, Wilcox. Anderson, who had masked the withdrawal from the Rappahannock line, was due to arrive by nightfall.
Moving from the scene of last night’s bloody encounter, Jackson had placed his three divisions along the grade of an unfinished railroad. Part cut, part fill, it furnished an excellent defensive position, practically a ready-made system of intrenchments, roughly parallel to the turnpike across which Longstreet’s line was drawn. When the Valley soldiers heard that their comrades had completed the march from Thoroughfare Gap and were filing into position on the right—“covered with dust so thick,” one cavalryman observed, “that all looked as if they had been painted one color”—they rose and cheered them, despite the cannonade, which had scarcely slacked since sunup. Presently, though, they had more to worry about than bursting shells. The blue infantry was swarming to the attack.
The Federal chieftain’s plans for a simultaneous double blow at both of Stonewall’s flanks had gone astray, Porter having been delayed by darkness and two of the missing McDowell’s three divisions having fallen back on Manassas after their twilight fights at Groveton and the Gap. “God damn McDowell, he’s never where I want him,” Pope was saying, angry but undaunted. He sent staff officers to locate them and hurry them along. Meanwhile, Sigel, Reno, and Heintzelman were at hand, and he flung them forward, still convinced that Jackson was trying to escape. One after another, they surged across the open fields, breaking in waves against the embankment where Stonewall’s bayonets glittered. The closest they came to success was on the rebel left, where some woods afforded a covered approach. This was on Little Powell’s front, the extreme flank of which was held by Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg’s South Carolinians. Kearny’s division struck hard here, effecting a lodgment astride the ramp and pressing down on the end of the line as if to roll it up. On a rocky knoll, here on the far-east margin of the conflict, Rebs and Yanks fought hand to hand. Bayonets crossed; rifle butts cracked skulls. A bachelor lawyer, somewhat deaf, Gregg strode up and down, brandishing an old Revolutionary scimitar and calling for a rally. “Let us die here, my men. Let us die here,” he said. Many did die, something over 600 in all, but the knoll was held. The Federals withdrew.
Hill did not think it would be for long. He sent word to Jackson that he would do his best, but that he doubted whether his men could withstand another such assault. Jackson sent the courier back with a sharp message: “Tell him if they attack him again he must beat them!” Riding toward the left to see for himself, he met the red-haired Hill coming to speak to him in person. “General, your men have done nobly,” Jackson told him. “If you are attacked again, you will beat the enemy back.” At this, the clatter broke out again in the woods on the left. “Here it comes,” Hill said. As he turned his horse and rode back into the uproar, Jackson called after him: “I’ll expect you to beat them!” The clatter rose to climax, then subsided. A messenger came galloping out of the smoke and pulled up alongside Jackson: “General Hill presents his respects and says the attack of the enemy was repulsed.” Jackson smiled. “Tell him I knew he would do it,” he said.
That was how it went, touch and go, all along his line all afternoon. Pope paid no mind to Longstreet, being unaware that he was even on the field: which, indeed, might practically as well have been the case, so far as relief of the pressure on Jackson was concerned, except for some batteries in brisk action on a ridge to Hood’s left where the lines were hinged, like widespread jaws gaping east-southeast. Lee was quick to suggest that Old Pete swing the lower jaw forward and upward in order to engage the bluecoats and absorb some of the single-minded pressure they were applying to the weary men along the unfinished railroad. But Longstreet demurred. He never liked to go piecemeal into battle unprepared; Anderson was not yet up, and he had not had time enough for a thorough study of the ground. Besides, Stuart reported a force of undetermined strength gathering on the right; this, too, would have to be investigated. Regretfully Lee agreed to a delay. Longstreet left on a personal reconnaissance, then presently returned. He did not like the look of things. More Federals were coming up from the south, he said, in position to stab at his flank if he moved east. If they would venture squarely into the jaws, he would gladly clamp and chew them with gusto; but for the present he saw little profit, and much risk, in advancing.
Jackson rode up, dusty and worn. The two generals greeted him, and in reply to his statement that his line was hard pressed Lee turned to Longstreet. “Hadn’t we better move our line forward?” he suggested.
“I think not,” Longstreet said. “We had better wait until we hear more from Stuart about the force he has reported moving against us from Manassas.”
A step-up in the firing toward the east caused Jackson to ride off in that direction. Federal dead and wounded were heaped along the forward slope where the Confederates, drawing their beads under cover of the cuts and fills, had dropped them. Charge after charge was repulsed all down the line, but this was accomplished at a high cost to the badly outnumbered defenders: especially when the fighting was conducted at close quarters, as it often was today. In Starke’s division, on the right, not a single brigade was under a general officer, and one was led by a major. In Lawton’s, when bull-voiced old Ike Trimble was hit and carried from the field, command of his brigade passed for a time to a captain. For the survivors, fighting their battle unrelieved and unsupported, this was the longest of all days. One remembered, years afterward, how he spent the infrequent lulls “praying that the great red sun, blazing and motionless overhead, would go down.” He added, looking back: “For the first time in my life I understood what was meant by ‘Joshua’s sun standing still on Gibeon,’ for it would not go down.”
At last, however, as it approached the landline, Lee suggested for the third time that Longstreet attack. But Longstreet still demurred. Stuart had identified the hovering bluecoats as Porter’s corps, two veteran divisions. Besides, Old Pete had a new objection: There was too little daylight left. The best thing to do, he said, would be to make a forced reconnaissance at dusk; then, if an opening was discovered, the whole army could exploit it at dawn tomorrow. Once more Lee deferred to Longstreet, who assigned the task to Hood.
The Texans moved out at sunset, advancing up the Warrenton Turnpike, “the light of battle in our eyes—I reckon,” one recalled—“and fear of it in our hearts—I know.” They collided in the dusk with King’s division, returning from Manassas, in a fight so confused that one Union major was captured when he tried to rally a regiment that turned out to be the 2d Mississippi. Hood held his ground, driving the weary Federals back, but when he reported to Lee and Longstreet after dark, he recommended that his troops be withdrawn to their original position. Nor did he think that an attack next morning would succeed in that direction; the enemy position was too strong, he said. Thus Longstreet’s daylong judgment was apparently confirmed. Lee gave Hood permission to withdraw, which he did, encountering in the darkness the men of Anderson’s division, just arrived from Thoroughfare Gap, and thus prevented them from stumbling blindly into the Union lines.
The long day’s fight was over. Out across the night-shrouded fields and in the woods behind the corpse-strewn embankment, the groans of the wounded were incessant. “Water! For God’s sake, water!” men were crying. Jackson’s medical director, reporting the heavy casualties to his chief, said proudly: “General, this day has been won by nothing but stark and stern fighting.” Stonewall shook his head. “No,” he said. “It has been won by nothing but the blessing and protection of Providence.”
Dawn found Pope in excellent spirits. His headquarters were on a little knoll in the northeast quadrant formed by the intersection of the Manassas-Sudley road with the Warrenton Turnpike, and as he stood there in the growing light, burly and expansive, smoking a cigar and chatting informally with his staff and those commanders who found time to ride over for a visit, the gruffness which was habitual—one of his aides referred to it as “infusing some of his western energy into the caravan”—seemed merely a form of bantering this morning, pleased as he was with the overall success of his efforts to keep Stonewall from escaping. He had cast his net and the foe was entangled; now all that remained, apparently, was the agreeable task of hauling him in, hand over hand.
By no means had all gone to suit him yesterday. The attacks, though pressed with vigor, had been delivered somewhat piecemeal. Most irksome of all, Fitz-John Porter had declined to advance against Jackson’s right flank, claiming that Longstreet barred the way with something like three times as many men as he himself had. Pope did not believe this for an instant. At 4.30 he repeated his orders for Porter to “press forward into action at once on the enemy’s flank, and, if possible, on his rear.” Porter balked, still insisting that he had more than half of the rebel army to his front, and darkness fell before Pope could budge him. Disappointed, the Federal commander moved the sluggish Porter around to the main line, paralleling the turnpike, and prepared for an all-out assault at dawn, when he wired Halleck a summary of his achievements: “We fought a terrific battle here yesterday … which lasted with continuous fury from daybreak until dark, by which time the enemy was driven from the field, which we now occupy. Our troops are too much exhausted yet to push matters, but I shall do so in the course of the morning.… The enemy is still in our front, but badly used up. We have lost not less than 8000 men killed and wounded, but from the appearance of the field the enemy lost at least two to one. He stood strictly on the defensive, and every assault was made by ourselves. Our troops behaved splendidly. The battle was fought on the identical battlefield of Bull Run, which greatly increased the enthusiasm of our men.” In midparagraph he added, “The news just reaches me from the front that the enemy is retreating toward the mountains. I go forward at once to see.”
He did go forward, onto the knoll at any rate, and what he saw encouraged him still more. Where bayonets had glittered yesterday along the bed of the unfinished railroad, the goal of so many charges that had broken in blood along its base, today there was stillness and apparent vacancy. Only a few gray riflemen contested the sniping from Federal outposts. Combined with the knowledge of Hood’s withdrawal down the turnpike after midnight, this intelligence led Pope to believe that Jackson had pulled out, leaving only a skeleton force to discourage the blue pursuit. Still, anxious though he was to garner the utmost fruits of victory, Pope curbed his tendency toward rashness. In the end, he knew, more would be gained if the chase was conducted in a well-coördinated fashion than if he took off half-cocked and over-eager. While he stood there on the headquarters knoll, wreathed in cigar smoke as he chatted with his staff, orders went out prescribing the dispositions for pursuit. McDowell would be in general charge of the two-pronged advance. Porter’s corps and two divisions from McDowell’s would move directly down the pike; Heintzelman’s corps, supported by McDowell’s other division, would move up the Hay Market road. With Stonewall’s getaway thus contested in both directions, troop commanders were expressly instructed to “press him vigorously during the whole day.”
All this took time, but Pope felt he could afford it now that he had a full-scale victory under his belt. Careful preparations, with strict attention to details, would pay dividends in the long run, when the rebels were brought to bay and the mopping-up began. Noon came and went. A heavy silence lay over the heat-shimmered field, broken from time to time by sputters of fire exchanged by the men on outpost. At 2 o’clock, informed that all was in order at last, Pope gave the signal and the pursuit got under way.
Deliberate though these preparations were, the pursuit itself—or anyhow what Pope conceived as such—was probably the briefest of the war. Jackson was by no means retreating; he had merely withdrawn his troops for some unmolested and hard-earned rest in the woods along the base of Sudley Mountain just in his rear, leaving a thin line to man the works and give the alarm in case the Yankees showed signs of advancing. He doubted that they would do so, after their failures yesterday, but he was perfectly willing to meet them if they tried it. Longstreet—who was very much on hand with all five of his divisions, no matter what evidence Pope had received (or deduced) in denial of the fact—was more than willing; he was downright eager. In fact, now that Porter’s corps had been shifted from its threatening position off his flank, he desired nothing in all the world quite so much as that the Federals would launch a full-scale attack across his front, though he too doubted that Fortune’s smile could ever be that broad.
Lee, who doubted it most of all, began to be concerned that Pope would get away unsuppressed, having suffered only such punishment as Jackson had managed to inflict while receiving his headlong charges the day before. As the long morning wore away, marked by nothing more eventful than the occasional growl of a battery or the isolated sputter of an argument between pickets, Lee took the opportunity to catch up on his correspondence. “My desire,” he wrote the President, “has been to avoid a general engagement, being the weaker force, and by maneuvering to relieve the portion of the country referred to.” By this he meant the region along the Rappahannock, whose relief had been accomplished by forcing Pope’s retreat on Manassas. Now his mind turned to the possibilities at hand. If Pope would not attack, then he would have to be “maneuvered.” About noon, while Lee was working on a plan for moving again around his opponent’s right, crossing Bull Run above Sudley Springs in order to threaten his rear, Stuart came to headquarters with an interesting report. He had sent a man up a large walnut tree, Jeb said, and the man had spotted the bluecoats massing in three heavy lines along Jackson’s front. Quickly Lee sent couriers to warn of the danger. Jackson alerted his troops but kept them in the woods. He had been observing the Federal activity for some time, but, concluding that nothing would come of it, had remarked to the colonel commanding the Stonewall Brigade: “Well, it looks as if there will be no fight today.…”
Shortly before 3 o’clock he found out just how wrong he was. Suddenly, without even the warning preamble of an artillery bombardment, the blue infantry came roaring at him in three separate waves, stretching left and right as far as the eye could see. Buglers along the unfinished railroad gobbled staccato warnings, and the startled troops came running out of the woods to man the line. This was far worse than yesterday. Not only were the attacking forces much heavier; they seemed much more determined, individually and in mass, not to be denied a lodgment. Immediately Jackson began to receive urgent requests for reinforcements all along the front. One officer rode up to report that his brigade commander had been shot down and the survivors were badly shaken. They needed help.
“What brigade, sir?” Jackson asked, not having caught the name.
“The Stonewall Brigade.”
“Go back,” Jackson told him. “Give my compliments to them, and tell the Stonewall Brigade to maintain her reputation.”
For the present, reduced though it was to a ghost of its former self, the brigade managed to do as its old commander asked; but how long it would be able to continue to do so, under the strain, was another question. Rifle barrels grew too hot to handle, and at several points the defenders exhausted their ammunition. At one such critical location, the enemy having penetrated to within ten yards of the embankment, the graybacks beat them back with rocks. All along the two-mile front, the situation was desperate; no sooner was the pressure relieved in one spot than it increased again in another. Broken, then restored, Hill’s line wavered like a shaken rope. He was down to his last ounce of strength, he reported, and still the bluecoats came against him, too thick and fast for killing to do more than slow them down. Whereupon Jackson, who had no reserves to send in response to Hill’s plea for reinforcements, did something he had never done before. Outnumbered three to one by the attackers, whose bullets he was opposing with flung stones, he appealed to Lee to send him help from Longstreet.
In the Federal ranks there was also a measure of consternation, especially at the brevity of what they had been assured was a “pursuit.” Recovering from the shock of this discovery, however, the men fought with redoubled fury, as if glad of a chance to take their resentment of Pope out on the rebels. As usual, McDowell came in for his share of their bitterness—as witness the following exchange between a gray-haired officer and a wounded noncom limping rearward out of the fight:
“Sergeant, how does the battle go?”
“We’re holding our own; but McDowell has charge of the left.”
“Then God save the left!”
For the better part of an hour they came on, running hunched as if into a high wind, charging shoulder to shoulder across fields where long tendrils and sheets of gunsmoke writhed and billowed, sulphurous and “tinged with a hot coppery hue by the rays of the declining sun.” One among them was to remember it so, along with the accompanying distraction of rebel shells “continually screeching over our heads or plowing the gravelly surface with an ugly rasping whirr that makes one’s flesh creep.” Still they came on. Time after time, they faltered within reach of the flame-stitched crest of the embankment, then time after time came on again, stumbling over the huddled blue forms that marked the limits of their previous advances. They battered thus at Jackson’s line as if at a locked gate, beyond which they could see the cool green fields of peace. Determined to swing it ajar or knock it flat, they struck it again and again, flesh against metal, and feeling it tremble and crack at the hinges and hasp, they battered harder.
Longstreet stood on the ridge where his and Jackson’s lines were hinged. This not only gave him a panoramic view of the action, it also afforded an excellent position for massing the eighteen guns of a reserve artillery battalion which had arrived at dawn. The batteries were sighted so that they commanded, up to a distance of about 2000 yards to the east and northeast, the open ground across which the Federals were advancing. For the better part of an hour the cannoneers had watched hungrily while the blue waves were breaking against Stonewall’s right and center, perpendicular to and well within range of their guns. This was the answer to an artillerist’s prayer, but Old Pete was in no hurry. He was saving this for a Sunday punch, to be delivered when the time was right and the final Union reserves had been committed. Then it came: Jackson’s appeal for assistance, forwarded by Lee with the recommendation that a division of troops be sent. “Certainly,” Longstreet said. He spoke calmly, suppressing the excitement he and all around him felt as they gazed along the troughs and crests of the blue waves rolling northward under the muzzles of his guns. “But before the division can reach him, the attack will be broken by artillery.”
So it was. When Longstreet turned at last and gave the signal that unleashed them, the gunners leaped to their pieces and let fly, bowling their shots along the serried rows of Federals who up to now had been unaware of the danger to their flank. The effect was instantaneous. Torn and blasted by this fire, the second and third lines milled aimlessly, bewildered, then retreated in disorder: whereupon the first-line soldiers, looking back over their shoulders to find their supports in flight, also began to waver and give ground. This was that trembling instant when the battle scales of Fortune signal change, one balance pan beginning to rise as the other sinks.
Down on the flat, just after remarking calmly to one of his staff as he watched a line of wagons pass to the front, “I observe that some of those mules are without shoes; I wish you would see to it that all of the animals are shod at once,” Lee heard the uproar and divined its meaning. Without a change of expression, he sent word to Longstreet that if he saw any better way to relieve the pressure on Jackson than by sending troops, he should adopt it. Headquarters wigwagged a signal station on the left: “Do you still want reinforcements?” When the answer came back, “No. The enemy are giving way,” Lee knew the time had come to accomplish Pope’s suppression by launching an all-out counterstroke to compound the blue confusion. An order went at once to Longstreet, directing him to go forward with every man in his command. It was not needed; Old Pete was already in motion, bearing down on the moil of Federals out on the plain. A similar order went to Jackson, together with a warning: “General Longstreet is advancing. Look out for and protect his left flank.” But this also was unnecessary. When Stonewall’s men saw the bluecoats waver on their front, they too started forward. Right and left, as the widespread jaws began to close, the weird halloo of the rebel yell rang out.
Porter’s corps was on the exposed flank, under the general direction of McDowell, and Porter, who had been expressing dark forebodings all along—“I hope Mac is at work, and we will soon get ordered out of this,” he had written Burnside the night before—had taken the precaution of stationing two New York regiments, the only volunteer outfits in Sykes’ division of regulars, on his left as a shield against disaster. Facing west along the base of a little knoll on which a six-gun battery was posted, these New Yorkers caught the brunt of Longstreet’s assault, led by Hood. One regiment, thrown forward as a skirmish line, was quickly overrun. The other—Zouaves, nattily dressed in white spats, tasseled fezzes, short blue jackets, and baggy scarlet trousers—stood on the slope itself, holding firm while the battery flailed the attackers, then finally limbered and got away, permitting the New Yorkers to retire. They did this at a terrible cost, however. Out of 490 present when the assault began, 124 were dead and 223 had been wounded by the time it was over: which amounted to the largest percentage of men killed in any Federal regiment in any single battle of the war. Next morning, one of Hood’s men became strangely homesick at the sight of the dead Zouaves strewn about in their gaudy clothes. According to him, they gave the western slope of the little knoll “the appearance of a Texas hillside when carpeted in the spring by wild flowers of many hues and tints.”
The respite bought with their blood, however brief, had given Pope time to bring up reinforcements from the right, and they too offered what resistance they could to the long gray line surging eastward along both sides of the pike. This was undulating country, with easy ridges at right angles to the advance, so that to one defender it seemed that the Confederates, silhouetted against the great red ball of the setting sun, “came on like demons emerging from the earth.” There was delay as Longstreet’s left became exposed to enfilading fire from some batteries on Jackson’s right, but when these were silenced the advance swept on, tilted battle flags gleaming in the sunset. On Henry Hill, where Stonewall had won his nickname thirteen months ago, Sykes’ regulars stood alongside the Pennsylvanians of Reynolds’ division—he had been exchanged since his capture near Gaines Mill—and hurled back the disjointed rebel attacks that continued on through twilight into darkness.
There was panic, but it was not of the kind that had characterized the retreat from this same field the year before. The regulars were staunch, now as then, but there was by no means the same difference, in that respect, between them and the volunteers. Sigel’s Germans and the men with Reno also managed to form knots of resistance, while the rest withdrew across Stone Bridge in a drizzle of rain. McDowell, seeing the Iron Brigade hold firm along a critical ridge, put Gibbon in charge of the rear guard and gave him instructions to blow up the bridge when his Westerners had crossed over.
After McDowell left, Phil Kearny rode up, empty sleeve flapping, spike whiskers bristling with anger at the sudden reverse the army had suffered. “I suppose you appreciate the condition of affairs here, sir,” he cried. “It’s another Bull Run, sir. It’s another Bull Run!” When Gibbon said he hoped it was not as bad as that, Kearny snapped: “Perhaps not. Reno is keeping up the fight. He is not stampeded; I am not stampeded; you are not stampeded. That is about all, sir. My God, that’s about all!”
Two miles west of there, near Groveton, Lee was composing a dispatch to be telegraphed to Richmond for release by the President:
This army today achieved on the plains of Manassas a signal victory over combined forces of Generals McClellan and Pope.… We mourn the loss of our gallant dead in every conflict, yet our gratitude to Almighty God for his mercies rises higher and higher each day. To Him and to the valor of our troops a nation’s gratitude is due.
His losses were 1481 killed, 7627 wounded, 89 missing; Pope’s were 1724 killed, 8372 wounded, 5958 missing. Lee reported the capture of 7000 prisoners, exclusive of 2000 wounded left by Pope on the field, along with 30 guns and 20,000 small arms, numerous colors, and a vast amount of stores in addition to those consumed or destroyed by Jackson at Manassas Junction two days back.
Nor was that all. A larger triumph was reflected in the contrast between the present overall military situation, here in the East, and that which had existed when Lee assumed command three months ago. McClellan had stood within sight of the spires of Richmond; Jackson had been in flight up the Shenandoah Valley, pursued by superior enemy combinations; West Virginia had been completely in Federal hands, as well as most of coastal North Carolina, with invasion strongly threatened from both directions. Now Richmond had not only been delivered, but the Union host was in full retreat on Washington, with the dome of the Capitol practically in view and government clerks being mustered for a last-ditch defense of the city; the Valley was rapidly being scoured of the blue remnants left behind when Pope assembled his army to cross the Rappahannock; West Virginia was almost cleared of Federals, and the North Carolina coast was safe. Except for the garrisons at Fort Monroe and Norfolk, the only bluecoats within a hundred miles of the southern capital were prisoners of war and men now busy setting fire to U.S. stores and equipment at Aquia Creek, just north of Fredericksburg, preparing for a hasty evacuation.
Nor was that all, either. Beyond all this, there was the transformation effected within the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia itself: a lifting of morale, based on a knowledge of the growth of its fighting skill. Gone were the clumsy combinations of the Seven Days, the piecemeal attacks launched headlong against positions of the enemy’s own choice. Here in the gallant rivalry of Manassas, where Longstreet’s soldiers vied with Jackson’s for the “suppression” of an opponent they despised, the victory formula had apparently been found; Lee’s orders had been carried out instinctively, in some cases even before they were delivered. Tonight at army headquarters, which had been set up in an open field with a campfire of boards to read dispatches by, there was rejoicing and an air of mutual congratulation as officer after officer arrived to report new incidents of triumph. Lee—who had told his wife a month ago, “In the prospect before me I cannot see a single ray of pleasure during this war”—stood in the firelight, gray and handsome, impeccably uniformed, welcoming subordinates with the accustomed grace of a Virginia host.
“General, here is someone who wants to speak to you,” a staff captain said.
Lee turned and saw a smoke-grimed cannoneer standing before him, still with a sponge staff in one hand. “Well, my man, what can I do for you?”
“Why, General, don’t you know me?” Robert wailed.
There was laughter at this, a further lifting of spirits as troop commanders continued to report of the day’s successes. Hood rode up, weary but still elated over what he called “the most beautiful battle scene I have ever beheld.” When Lee, adopting the bantering tone he often used in addressing the blond young man, asked what had become of the enemy, Hood replied that his Texans had driven them “almost at a double-quick” across Bull Run. He added that it had been a wonderful sight to see the Confederate battle flags “dancing after the Federals as they ran in full retreat.” Lee dropped his jesting manner and said gravely, “God forbid I should ever live to see our colors moving in the opposite direction.”
While Lee was at Groveton, composing the dispatch to Davis, Pope was at Centerville, composing one to Halleck. All things being considered, the two were by no means as different as might have been expected.
We have had a terrific battle again today.… Under all the circumstances, both horses and men having been two days without food, and the enemy greatly outnumbering us, I thought it best to draw back to this place at dark. The movement has been made in perfect order and without loss. The troops are in good heart, and marched off the field without the least hurry or confusion.… Do not be uneasy. We will hold our own here.… p.s. We have lost nothing; neither guns nor wagons.
Of the several inaccuracies here involved (one being the comparison of forces; Lee had had 50,000 men engaged, while Pope had had 60,000—exclusive of Banks, who was guarding his trains) the greatest, perhaps, was the one in which he declared that his troops were “in good heart.” It was true that, after the first wild scramble for an exit, they had steadied and retired in column, under cover of the rear-guard action on Henry Hill; but their spirits were in fact so far from being high that they could scarcely have been lower. If Pope did not know the extent of his defeat, his men did. They agreed with the verdict later handed down by one of their corps historians, that Pope “had been kicked, cuffed, hustled about, knocked down, run over, and trodden upon as rarely happens in the history of war. His communications had been cut; his headquarters pillaged; a corps had marched into his rear, and had encamped at its ease upon the railroad by which he received his supplies; he had been beaten or foiled in every attempt he had made to ‘bag’ those defiant intruders; and, in the end, he was glad to find a refuge in the intrenchments of Washington, whence he had sallied forth, six weeks before, breathing out threatenings and slaughter.”
They agreed with this in all its harshness, but just now what they mainly were was sullen. They had fought well and they knew it. Defeat had come, not because they were outfought, but because they were outgeneraled—or misgeneraled. As one of their number put it, “All knew and felt that as soldiers we had not had a fair chance.” The fault, they believed, was Pope’s; he had “acted like a dunderpate.” And McDowell’s; he had revived their suspicions by repeating his past performance on this field. “General McDowell was viewed as a traitor by a large majority of the officers and men,” one diarist wrote, adding: “Thousands of soldiers firmly believed that their lives would be purposely wasted if they obeyed his orders in the time of the conflict.” The story was told that one of his regiments had stepped gingerly up to the firing line, loosed a random volley, then turned and made for the rear, the men shouting over their shoulders as they ran: “You can’t play it on us!” Slogging tonight through the drizzle of rain, they saw him sitting his horse beside the pike, identifiable in the murk because of the outlandish silhouette of his canvas helmet. One Massachusetts private nudged another, pointing, and said darkly: “How guilty he looks, with that basket on his head!”
Pope, too, came in for his share of abuse. “Open sneering at General Pope was heard on all sides,” one veteran observed. Another, passing the luckless commander by the roadside, hailed him with a quote from Horace Greeley: “Go west, young man! Go west!” Perhaps this had something to do with changing his mind as to the state of his men’s hearts. At any rate, when morning came—Sunday, August 31—he wired Halleck: “Our troops are … much used-up and worn-out,” and he spoke of giving the enemy “as desperate a fight as I can force our men to stand up to.” Franklin’s corps had come up the night before, in time to establish a straggler line in front of Centerville; Sumner too was at hand, giving Pope 20,000 fresh troops with which to oppose the rebels. But his confidence was ebbing. He told Halleck, “I should like to know whether you feel secure about Washington should this army be destroyed. I shall fight it as long as a man will stand up to the work. You must judge what is to be done, having in view the safety of the capital.”
No sooner had he sent this, however, than a reply to last night’s rosy message bucked him up again. “My Dear General: You have done nobly,” Halleck wired. “Don’t yield another inch if you can avoid it.” Pope thanked him for this “considerate commendation” and passed along the encouraging news that “Ewell is killed. Jackson is badly wounded.… The plan of the enemy will undoubtedly be to turn my flank. If he does so he will have his hands full.” Meanwhile, Franklin’s soldiers mocked and taunted the bedraggled Army of Virginia, jeering along the straggler line at its “new route” to Richmond. Overnight, Pope’s confidence took another sickening drop. Three hours after sunrise, September 1, he got off another long dispatch to Halleck. After a bold beginning—“All was quiet yesterday and so far this morning. My men are resting; they need it much.… I shall attack again tomorrow if I can; the next day certainly”—he passed at once to darker matters: “I think it my duty to call your attention to the unsoldierly and dangerous conduct of many brigade and some division commanders of the forces sent here from the Peninsula. Every word and act and intention is discouraging, and calculated to break down the spirits of the men and produce disaster.” In the light of this, he closed with a recommendation that ran counter to the intention expressed at the outset: “My advice to you—I give it with freedom, as I know you will not misunderstand it—is that, in view of any satisfactory results, you draw back this army to the intrenchments in front of Washington, and set to work in that secure place to reorganize and rearrange it. You may avoid great disaster by doing so.”
While waiting to see what would come of this, he found that Jackson (who was no more wounded than Ewell was dead) was in the act of fulfilling his prediction that Lee would try to turn his flank. Stonewall’s men had crossed Bull Run at Sudley Springs, then moved north to the Little River Turnpike, which led southeast to Fairfax Courthouse, eight miles in the Union rear. Pope pulled the troops of Phil Kearny and Brigadier General I. I. Stevens, who commanded Burnside’s other division under Reno, out of their muddy camps and sent them slogging northward to intercept the rebel column. They did so, late that afternoon. There beside the pike, around a mansion called Chantilly, a wild fight took place during a thunderstorm so violent that it drowned the roar of cannon. Jackson’s march had been slow; consequently he was in a grim and savage humor. In the rain-lashed confusion, when one of his colonels requested that his men be withdrawn because their cartridges were too wet to ignite, the reply came back: “My compliments to Colonel Blank, and tell him the enemy’s ammunition is just as wet as his.”
This spirit was matched on the Federal side by Kearny, who dashed from point to point, his empty sleeve flapping as he rode with the reins clamped in his teeth in order to have his one arm free to gesture with his saber, hoicking his troops up to the firing line and holding them there by showing no more concern for bullets than he did for raindrops. His prescription for success in leading men in battle was a simple one; “You must never be afraid of anything,” he had told a young lieutenant two days ago. Stevens followed his example, and between them they made Stonewall call a halt. The firing continued into early darkness, when on A. P. Hill’s front the men were surprised to see a Union general come riding full-tilt toward them, suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning. They called on him to surrender, but he whirled his mount, leaning forward onto its withers with his arm around its neck, and tried to gallop away in the confusion. They fired a volley that unhorsed him, and when they went out to pick him up they found that he was dead, lying one-armed in the mud, the back of his coat and the seat of his trousers torn by bullets. They brought his body into their lines. “Poor Kearny,” Hill said, looking down at him. “He deserved a better death than that.”
Stevens too was dead by now, shot while leading a charge, and the Federals fell back down the pike and through the woods. They did so more from being disheartened by the loss of their leaders, however, than from being pressed; Jackson did not pursue. Thus ended the Battle of Chantilly, a rain-swept drama with off-stage thunder, vivid flashes of lightning, and an epilogue supplied next morning by Lee, who sent Kearny’s body forward under a flag of truce, “thinking that the possession of his remains may be a consolation to his family.”
Pope by then was back at Fairfax, within twenty miles of Washington, having received from Halleck the instructions he had sought: “You will bring your forces as best you can within or near the line of fortification.” As the army retreated—“by squads, companies, and broken parts of regiments and brigades,” according to one enlisted diarist—its commander lost the final vestige of his former boldness. “The straggling is awful in the regiments from the Peninsula,” he complained to Halleck. “Unless something can be done to restore tone to this army it will melt away before you know it.” This was a new and different Pope, a Pope not unlike a sawdust doll with most of its stuffing leaked away. A surgeon who looked through a headquarters window the previous evening saw him so: “He sat with his chair tipped back against the wall, his hands clasped behind his head, which bent forward, his chin touching his breast—seeming to pay no attention to the generals as they arrived, but to be wholly wrapped in his own gloomy reflections.” The doctor wrote long afterward, and being a kind-hearted man, who had dealt with much misery in his life, he added: “I pitied him then. I pity him now.”
It was perhaps the only pity felt for him by anyone in the whole long weary column slogging its way eastward. Last night’s thunderstorm had deepened the mud along the pike, and overhead a scud of clouds obscured the sun, which shed an eerie yellow light upon the sodden fields. In a way, though, the weather was fitting, matching as it did the mood of the retreat. “Everyone you met had an unwashed, sleepy, downcast aspect,” one officer observed, “and looked as if he would like to hide his head somewhere from all the world.” Now that the immediate danger was past, a still worse reaction of sullenness had set in among the troops, whose mistrust of Pope quite balanced his expressed mistrust of them. As one colonel put it, “No salutary fear kept them in the ranks, and many gave way to the temptation to take a rest.… There was everywhere along the road the greatest confusion. Infantry and cavalry, artillery and wagons, all hurried on pell mell, in the midst of rallying cries of officers and calls and oaths of the men.”
Banks had come up from Bristoe Station, bringing the army’s wagons with him though he had been obliged to put the torch to all the locomotives and freight cars loaded with stores and munitions from Warrenton and other points below the wreckage of Broad Run bridge. His corps, having seen no fighting since Cedar Mountain, was assigned the rear guard duty, which consisted mainly of prodding frazzled stragglers back into motion and gathering up abandoned equipment littered along the roadside. At the head of the column—miles away, for the various units were badly strung out, clotted in places and gapped in others as a result of accordion action—rode Pope and McDowell, attended by their staffs and followed closely by the lead division, formerly King’s but now under Brigadier General John P. Hatch, who had succeeded the ailing King. That afternoon the sun came out, but it did little to revive the downcast marchers: least of all Hatch, who had more cause for gloom than most. He had commanded a cavalry brigade, that being the arm of service he preferred, until Pope relieved him for inefficiency and transferred him to the infantry. So Hatch had this to brood over, in addition to the events of the past few days. Then suddenly, up ahead, he saw something that made him forget his and the army’s troubles.
Off to one side loomed Munson’s Hill, which Joe Johnston had held with a dummy gun last winter. From its crown, Hatch knew, you could see the dome of the Capitol. But what engaged his attention just now was a small group of horsemen coming down the road toward Pope and McDowell: particularly the man in front, who rode a large black horse and wore a vivid yellow sash about his waist. Hatch thought there was something familiar about the trim and dapper way he sat his charger. Then, as the man reined to a halt in front of the two generals, returning their salutes with one of his own which “seemed to carry a little of personal good fellowship to even the humblest private soldier,” Hatch knew the unbelievable was true; it was Little Mac. He spurred ahead in time to hear McClellan tell Pope and McDowell he had been authorized to take command of the army. Off to the left rear just then there was a sudden thumping of artillery, dim in the distance. What was that? McClellan asked. Pope said it was probably an attack on Sumner, whose corps was guarding the flank in that direction. Then he inquired if there would be any objection if he and McDowell rode on toward Washington. None at all, McClellan replied; but as for himself, he was riding toward the sound of gunfire.
Before the two could resume their journey, Hatch took advantage of the chance to revenge the wrong he believed had been done when his cavalry brigade was taken from him the month before. Trotting back to the head of his infantry column, within easy hearing distance of Pope and McDowell, he shouted: “Boys, McClellan is in command of the army again! Three cheers!” The result, after an instant of shock while the words sank in, was pandemonium. Caps and knapsacks went sailing high in the air, and men who a moment ago had been too weary and dispirited to do anything more than plant one leaden foot in front of the other were cheering themselves hoarse, capering about, and slapping each other joyfully on the back. “From an extreme sadness,” one Massachusetts volunteer recalled, “we passed in a twinkling to a delirium of delight. A deliverer had come.” This was the reaction all down the column as the news traveled back along its length, pausing at the gaps between units, then being taken up again, moving westward like a spark along a ten-mile train of powder.
Such demonstrations were not restricted to green troops, volunteers likely to leap at every rumor. Sykes’ regulars, for example, were far back toward the rear and did not learn of the change till after nightfall. They were taking a rest-halt, boiling coffee in a roadside field, when an officer on picket duty saw by starlight the familiar figure astride Dan Webster coming down the pike. “Colonel! Colonel!” he hollered, loud enough to be heard all over the area, “General McClellan is here!” Within seconds every man was on his feet and cheering, raising what one of them called “such a hurrah as the Army of the Potomac had never heard before. Shout upon shout went out into the stillness of the night; and as it was taken up along the road and repeated by regiment, brigade, division and corps, we could hear the roar dying away in the distance. The effect of this man’s presence upon the Army of the Potomac—in sunshine or rain, in darkness or in daylight, in victory or defeat—was electrical.” Hard put for words to account for the delirium thus provoked, he could only add that it was “too wonderful to make it worth while attempting to give a reason for it.”
Nor was the enthusiasm limited to veterans of Little Mac’s own army, men who had fought under him before. When Gibbon announced the new commander’s arrival to the survivors of the Iron Brigade, they too reacted with unrestrained delight, tossing their hats and breaking ranks to jig and whoop, just as the Peninsula boys were doing. Later that night, Gibbon remembered afterward, “the weary, fagged men went into camp cheerful and happy, to talk over their rough experience of the past three weeks and speculate as to what was ahead.”
It was Lincoln’s doing, his alone, and he had done it against the will of a majority of his advisers. Chase believed that the time had come, beyond all doubt, when “either the government or McClellan must go down,” and Stanton had prepared and was soliciting cabinet signatures for an ultimatum demanding “the immediate removal of George B. McClellan from any command in the armies of the United States.” When Welles protested that such a document showed little consideration for their chief, the War Secretary bristled and said coldly: “I know of no particular obligation I am under to the President. He called me to a difficult position and imposed on me labors and responsibilities which no man could carry.” Already he had secured four signatures—his own, Chase’s, Bates’, and Smith’s—and was working hard for more (Welles and Blair were obdurate, and Seward was still out of town) when, on the morning of this same September 2, he came fuming into the room where his colleagues were waiting for Lincoln to arrive and open the meeting. It was a time of strain. Reports of Pope’s defeat had caused Stanton to call out the government clerks, order the contents of the arsenal shipped to New York, and forbid the retail sale of spirituous liquors in the city. Now came the climactic blow as he announced, in a choked voice, the rumor that McClellan had been appointed to conduct the defense of Washington.
The effect was stunning: a sort of reversal of what would happen later that day along the blue column plodding east from Fairfax. Just as Chase was declaring that, if true, this would “prove a national calamity,” Lincoln came in and confirmed the rumor. That was why he was late for the meeting, he explained. He and Halleck had just come from seeing McClellan and ordering him to assume command of the armies roundabout the capital. Stanton broke in, trembling as he spoke: “No order to that effect has been issued from the War Department.” Lincoln turned and faced him. “The order is mine,” he said, “and I will be responsible for it to the country.”
Four nights ago he had gone to bed confident that the army had won a great victory on the plains of Manassas: a triumph which, according to Pope, would be enlarged when he took up the pursuit of Jackson’s fleeing remnant. Overnight, however, word arrived that it was Pope who was in retreat, not Stonewall, and Lincoln came into his secretary’s room next morning, long-faced and discouraged. “Well, John, we are whipped again, I am afraid,” he said. All day the news got worse as details of the fiasco trickled through the screen of confusion. Halleck was a weak prop to lean on; Lincoln by now had observed that his general in chief was “little more than … a first-rate clerk.” What was worse, he was apt to break down under pressure; which was presently what happened. Before the night was over, Old Brains appealed to McClellan at Alexandria: “I beg of you to assist me in this crisis with your ability and experience. I am utterly tired out.”
Lincoln’s mind was also turning in Little Mac’s direction, although not without reluctance. Unquestionably, it appeared to him, McClellan had acted badly in regard to Pope. One of his subordinates had even been quoted as saying publicly, “I don’t care for John Pope a pinch of owl dung.” It seemed to Lincoln that they had wanted Pope to fail, no matter what it cost in the blood of northern soldiers. McClellan, when appealed to for counsel, had advised the President to concentrate all the reserves in the capital intrenchments and “leave Pope to get out of his scrape” as best he could. To Lincoln this seemed particularly callous, if not crazy; his mistrust of the Young Napoleon was increased. But early Tuesday morning, when Pope warned that “unless something can be done to restore tone to this army it will melt away before you know it,” he did what he knew he had to do. “We must use what tools we have,” he told his secretary. “There is no man in the army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as [McClellan]…. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”
So he went to him and told him to return to the army whose wounded were already beginning to pour into the city. And that afternoon, despite the howls of the cabinet—Stanton was squelched, but Chase was sputtering, “I cannot but feel that giving command to McClellan is equivalent to giving Washington to the rebels”—Lincoln had Halleck issue the formal order: “Major General McClellan will have command of the fortifications of Washington and of all the troops for the defense of the capital.” This left Pope to be disposed of, which was done three days later. “The Armies of the Potomac and Virginia being consolidated,” he was told by dispatch, “you will report for orders to the Secretary of War.” Reporting as ordered, he found himself assigned to duty against the Sioux, who had lately risen in Minnesota. From his headquarters in St Paul, where he was settled before the month was out, Pope protested vehemently against the injustice of being “banished to a remote and unimportant command.” But there he stayed, for the duration.