Sunday, January 20, 2013

Robert E. Lee Frustrations and Bitter Weeds

 Mike Scruggs

One of my favorite books on Lee

On April 18, 1861, Robert E. Lee turned down the offer President Lincoln made through Francis Preston Blair to make him Supreme Commander of the United States (Union) Army. This was an agonizing decision, but Lee felt he could not with good conscience raise his hand against his home state of Virginia. On April 22, Virginia’s Governor, John Letcher, with the approval of the Virginia Convention of Delegates, offered Lee the command of all Virginia military and naval forces with the rank of Major General. After accepting his appointment, he made some brief remarks at an enthusiastic reception in Richmond, including these words:

“I would have much preferred had your choice fallen on an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever draw my sword.”

When on May 23, the citizens of Virginia ratified the Secession Ordinance of April 17 by a popular vote of 132,201 to 37,451; Lee became a Major General in the Confederate Army and was made Confidential Military Advisor to President Jefferson Davis.

Plans were already underway to move the Confederate Capital from Montgomery to Richmond. There may have been many strong political reasons for moving the capital to Richmond, but it placed the seat of Confederate government under constant threat by large concentrations of Union troops with short supply lines to Washington. It therefore limited Confederate defensive and offensive options.

Within a few months, two smashing Confederate victories demoralized the North and lifted Southern hopes to unrealistic levels. On June 10, 1,400 Confederate troops soundly defeated a Union force of nearly 7,000 at Big Bethel Church near the town of Hampton in southeastern Virginia. 

On July 21, massive Union and Confederate forces of about 35,000 each collided near Manassas, Virginia.  Northern public clamor and political pressures were at high pitch by mid-July to defeat the Confederate Army and take Richmond. Lincoln gave the assignment to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. McDowell did not believe his troops were ready, but coaxed by Lincoln, he proceeded, against his own better judgment, toward Bull Run Creek and the Confederate Army posted to intercept his advance to Richmond. The Confederates under Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, advancing from near the Manassas railroad junction, planned to strike first by flanking McDowell’s left. McDowell preempted Beauregard, however, with his own planned flank of Beauregard’s left, but it was poorly executed by his inexperienced troops. Nevertheless, McDowell seemed to have won a slight advantage due to Confederate confusion.  But Confederate reinforcements under General Joe Johnston arrived by rail from the Shenandoah Valley and quickly intervened. The tide of battle changed about noon, when Union troops were unable to advance against one of Johnston’s Virginia brigades commanded by Colonel Thomas J. Jackson. Thus evolved the nickname, “Stonewall.” for both Jackson and his brigade. 

As Union troops began to withdraw from Jackson’s “stone wall,” Jackson ordered his five regiments to fix bayonets and charge. His famous words were:

“Reserve your fire until they come within 50 yards! Then fire and give them the bayonet! And when you charge, yell like furies!"

This was the first time Union troops heard the disturbing “Rebel yell.”

Jackson’s “Stonewall” Brigade was accompanied in this charge by Wade Hampton’s South Carolina Legion and J.E. B. Stuart’s Virginia cavalry. After an intense back-and-forth battle, one of Jackson’s units captured a Union artillery battery and turned the guns on Union troops as the Confederates brought up their close-action smooth-bore artillery and began to shred Union infantry. These developments turned the Union withdrawal into a disorderly panic streaming toward Washington. This was the largest battle ever fought on American soil until that date. 

Lee had played a major role in organizing and training Virginia troops prior to Manassas, but he was left in Richmond to agonize as others rode into battle. On July 28, Lee was sent to western Virginia to advise and coordinate the restructuring of Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett’s brigade of 2,300 men, who had been badly Laurel Hill. Garnett was himself killed in action. Lee found the new commander, Brigadier General W.W. Loring, however, to be resentful, surly, and uncooperative. Having only advisory authority, Lee tried gentlemanly diplomacy, but it did not work well with Loring.

On August 31, however, Lee, Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and P. T. G. Beauregard were made full generals, joining Joseph E. Johnston at that rank. Lee was given a date of rank senior to Beauregard and Joe Johnston, causing some resentment by the latter.  Loring’s attitude improved but not sufficiently.

On September 15-17, Lee tried to coordinate an attack on Union troops at Cheat Mountain. But bad intelligence, bad weather, poor communications from Loring, and measles, dysentery, other sicknesses affecting half the Confederate troops, caused Lee to break off the attack after about 120 casualties and withdraw. Lee then went to the Kanawha River Valley to help two small forces under rival political Brigadier Generals John B. Floyd and H. A. Wise. The two were so quarrelsome and jealous and of each other that cooperation was poor. Lee reconciled them to their duty, but much time was lost. As a result, an opportunity to strike a blow against an advancing Union force was lost before the Confederate forces were able to act.

Although Lee never had direct authority over the troops in western Virginia, he returned to Richmond with all the blame of Cheat Mountain and Kanawha Valley on his shoulders. The Richmond newspapers made sure that burden was heavy. But Providence was about to start Lee on a path that would make him the most respected and admired general in American history.

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