The seven weeks that followed the appointment of Lee to the command of the Virginia forces are the least known of his military career, but certainly among the most interesting. They are little known because the confused events of the period were eclipsed by his conduct of field operations the next year. They are interesting because they represent the solution adopted by a trained military mind for problems that recur in every democratic society that is forced to raise an army from untrained citizens on the outbreak of a war for which there has been no adequate defensive preparation. A close study of what Lee did in Virginia in April-June, 1861, would have prevented some of the blunders of the Spanish War in 1898 and might have simplified the far vaster mobilization of 1917.
PHOTOGRAPH OF GENERAL LEE ISSUED IN BALTIMORE IN 1861 AND REPRESENTING HIM WITH A HAT BEARING THE LETTERS "VA."
There is a possibility that this was retouched from a photograph taken prior to 1861, as the uniform appears to be that of the United States army. If the photograph is authentic, it is the only one posed, so far as is known, while Lee was in commandº of the military and naval forces of Virginia.
That this large state would have to be prepared immediately for defense was apparent to all. She had already committed acts of war, though for self-preservation, and she must accept the consequences. The Federal authority had been overthrown everywhere in Virginia except at Lee's old post, Fort Monroe, which had been too powerful for the state's volunteers to assault. Harpers Ferry, familiar to the whole country because of the John Brown raid, had been mistakenly believed by the Virginians to have in its Federal arsenal not less than 16,000 modern small arms, badly needed for the defense of the state, together with immensely valuable machinery for the manufacture of muskets and rifles. As soon as the secessionist leaders had been convinced that the convention would withdraw Virginia from the Union, they had determined to capture the Harpers Ferry arsenal, which was held by a small detachment of United States troops. On the night of April 18 Virginia volunteers had descended on the place, only to find that the commander of the guard had received information of their approach and had set fire to the buildings before withdrawing into Maryland.2 The machinery had escaped the flames, but most of the small arms had been destroyed. The site being as vulnerable as it was important, the Virginia volunteers who occupied Harpers Ferry were more or less in the attitude of holding a wolf by the ears.
In another corner of the state, at Norfolk, the United States had maintained a large navy yard, where the coming of secession had found ten warships of various classes anchored or undergoing repairs, close to warehouses that contained large stores and much equipment. Norfolk volunteers had promptly sunk some hulks at the mouth of the Elizabeth River in an effort to prevent the escape of the naval vessels. The troops had believed themselves successful in blocking the river, and they had been mustering for the difficult task of storming the navy yard and of boarding the p474 warships, when the sloop Pawnee — the same craft that alarmed Richmond the next day — had steamed through the obstructions on the night of April 20, and had landed a contingent of about 500 men at the navy yard. They had proceeded to set fire to the buildings and vessels and, about midnight, had left aboard their ship, with the Cumberland in tow. The next day the Virginians had occupied the navy yard, and had thrown up works to prevent a return of the Federals. On the 22d General Walter Gwynn had taken command at Norfolk, on orders from Governor Letcher.3 Virtually all that was known of the situation, when Lee set to work, was that the fire had burned most of the warships to the water's edge, that the new frigate Merrimac and perhaps one or two others could be raised, that damage to the stores had been slight, and that a great number of unmounted naval guns and some 2800 barrels of powder had fallen into the hands of the Virginians.4
These overt acts would certainly be answered, and speedily, by the Federal Government. It could not permit its power to be flouted at Harpers Ferry and at Norfolk. President Lincoln, in his proclamation of April 15, had given the Southern forces twenty days in which "to disperse and return peaceably to their respective abodes."5 This was generally interpreted to mean that the President would wait until May 5 and then would begin the invasion of the South. He might not delay even that long in employing the navy, which was readily for action.
Twelve days, then, Lee had — from April 23 to May 5 — in which to prepare Virginia for the first shock of the invasion that was certain to be visited on the Old Dominion sooner than on any other state, because she was on the frontier. What resources could he command for so huge an undertaking? Enthusiasm, yes, for many of the volunteer companies had assembled, in addition to those that had marched on Norfolk and on Harpers Ferry, and they were clamoring to be mustered into service. Some arms p475 Virginia had and facilities of a sort for equipping and uniforming a number of troops. The militia had a paper organization; the commonwealth had decent local credit. A measure of help could be expected from the Confederacy, for it had been making readily since February. But of organization there was little and of naval vessels there were almost none.
How did Lee view this prospect? He was convinced that war would come;6 that it would be prolonged, he feared for reasons all too valid. "The war may last ten years," he wrote Mrs. Lee, when he had been in Richmond only eight days.7 "He warned those around him," one member of the military committee of the convention attested, "that they were just on the threshold of a long and bloody war, and advised them if they had any idea that the contest in which they were about to engage was to be a slight one, to dismiss all such thoughts from their minds, saying that he knew the Northern people well, and knew that they would never yield in that contest except at the conclusion of a long and desperate struggle."8 The fullest expression of Lee's mind at this time, oddly enough, is to be found in a letter of May 5 to a little girl in the North, the daughter, no doubt, of friends of happier days. She had asked for his photograph, which he sent her with a letter that concluded: "It is painful to think how many friends will be separated and estranged by our unhappy disunion. May God reunite our severed bonds of friendship, and turn our hearts to peace! I can say in sincerity that I bear animosity against no one. Wherever the blame may be, the facts that we are in the midst of a fratricidal war. I must side either with or against my section of country.9 I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children. I should like, above all things, that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged, p476 and still trust that a merciful God, whom I know will not unnecessarily afflict us, may yet allay the fury for war. Whatever may be the result of the contest, I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, of our national sins. May God direct all for our good, and shield and preserve you and yours."10 To another and older friend, Reverend Cornelius Walker, he wrote: "I shall need all your good wishes and all your prayers for strength and guidance in the struggle in which we are engaged and earnestly and humbly look for help to Him alone who can save us, and who has permitted the dire calamity of this fratricidal war to impend over us. If we are not worthy that it should pass from us, may He in His great mercy shield us from its dire effects and save us from the calamity our sins have produced. Conscious of my imperfections and the little claim I have to be classed among Christians, I know the temptations and trials I shall have to pass through. May God enable me to perform my duty and not suffer me to be tempted beyond my strength."11
Lee could not proceed according to any formally drafted plan, matured at leisure or taken from a vault where it had been placed in advance by a general staff that had foreseen all the contingencies and had drafted all the orders. His plan, on the contrary, had to be shaped virtually as it was being executed, in an atmosphere of excited haste and with scant trained assistance. Yet as Lee's successive steps are retraced from his dispatches, their logic appears, and it is possible to see why he acted when he did. Emergencies forced him to extemporize. Limitation of men and of materials restricted him. He was compelled, on occasion, to attempt simultaneously many preparations he would have preferred to undertake successively. He held fast, however, to the essentials of a systematized if hurried programme.
He postulated everything on the maintenance of a strict defensive as long as possible. That was put above everything else. He saw Virginia could not undertake an offensive or even an p477 offensive-defensive, and he reasoned that if limited operations were temporarily successful, they would quickly bring upon Virginia attacks that would complicate if they did not defeat his preparation.
He enunciated this defensive policy as soon as he entered upon his duties. "You will act on the defensive," he wrote on April 24 to the officer whom Letcher had placed in charge on the Rappahannock River.12 He put his instant disapproval on a wild plan to attempt to throw Virginia troops into Baltimore.13 "It is important," he said, "that conflict be not provoked before we are ready."14 Lest seizure lead to reprisals, he earnestly urged that ships should not be detained in Virginia waters unless they were necessary for the defense of the state.15 The most that he would countenance on any of the fronts was the removal of the buoys and the destruction of the lightships in the Potomac River off Alexandria.16
In holding to this basic strategy, while organizing the Virginia forces, Lee had to restrain the ardor of men who believed that an early offensive meant an easy victory over an effete foe. Soon after the secession of Virginia, L. Pope Walker, the Confederate Secretary of War, sent to Richmond a friend who might be termed an "unofficial observer." This gentleman, D. G. Duncan, was very critical of Lee's caution. In daily telegrams to Walker, Duncan lamented the manner in which the Virginia commander sought, as he averred, to repress the enthusiasm of the people.17 Duncan went so far as to hint that there was treachery in Virginia,18 though ultimately he was convinced that Lee was acting with vigor.19 So far as is known, Lee paid no heed to Duncan, but he could not wholly ignore the boasts of the uninformed or the invective of the bitter, for he regarded every overconfident expression as dangerous, p478 and every disposition to minimize the fighting qualities of the North as an obstacle to adequate preparation in the South. Braggadocio was worse than that. He wrote Mrs. Lee when he had been in Richmond three weeks: "I agree with you in thinking that the inflammatory articles in the papers do us much harm. I object particularly to those in the Southern papers, as I wish them to take a firm, dignified course, free from bravado and boasting."20 Later on, when all serious men should have seen that the calamity of a long and bitter war had fallen on America, an indulgent father brought a young hopeful of five years to Lee's office to present a Bible to the General. An aide pleaded Lee's preoccupation, but the General heard the conversation and insisted that the visitors be admitted. Having made the gift, the little boy was sitting on Lee's knee when the father demanded of him: "What is General Lee going to do with General Scott?" The lad, having been coached in advance, replied promptly: "He is going to whip him out of his breeches." Lee's manner changed instantly. He stood the youngster on his feet, looked at him intently, and spoke to the father over the tiny fellow's shoulders. "My dear little boy," he said very earnestly, "you should not use such expressions. War is a serious matter, and General Scott is a great and good soldier. None of us can tell what the result of the contest will be."21
In this spirit, having determined on a defensive policy, Lee had to ask himself seven questions:
1. How could he offset the sea power of the North, with its immediate, constant threat to Virginia, open as the very heart of the state was to invasion up her long tidal rivers?
2. Should he attempt to hold Harpers Ferry, and could he retain Norfolk, with its dry dock, its machinery, and its proximity to the sea?
3. How were competent officers to be procured in sufficient numbers for the troops that were to be called into the field?
4. On what basis and with what personnel was the general staff to be organized?
6 In what way were the necessary arms and equipment to be provided and distributed?
7. When mobilized, armed, trained, where could the Virginia forces be disposed to meet effectively the advance of a superior enemy, that not only controlled Chesapeake Bay, but was able to move into Virginia simultaneously from the north, the east, and the west?
His answer to the first of these questions was a vindication of all that Mahan was later to argue regarding sea power. The readiness of the Federal navy was more to be regarded at this time than the mobilization of a great Federal army. Virginia must be saved from the possibility of a fleet movement up the Rappahannock, the York, or the James, all of which were navigable to points within striking distance of Richmond. Governor Letcher had been quick to sense this danger. Embarrassed as he had been by the lack of military experience and of trained advisers,22 he had taken the first defensive steps immediately after the ordinance of secession had been passed. On April 20 the convention had created the advisory commission of three that Lee had seen in the hall of the convention, Judge Allen, Colonel Smith, and Captain Maury.23 With the help of these men the governor had proceeded to organize for the defense of the rivers. Powder had been hurried from Norfolk. Subsistence and quartermaster services had been set up,24 commanders had been named on the Potomac and on the Rappahannock,25 a veteran naval officer had been named to conduct the Norfolk navy yard,26 heavy ordnance had been transported from that city, though there were no carriages for it;27 some light artillery had been sent to the Potomac,28 and the state's engineer had been dispatched to p480 Gloucester Point and to Yorktown, at the mouth of the York River, to lay out batteries there.29 Lee pushed this work with the most insistent vigor. The state engineer proved to be none other than Lee's chief of happier days, Colonel Andrew Talcott.30 Lee was happy to renew association with this able officer, though, he wrote Talcott, "I sincerely lament the calamitous times in which we have fallen."31 From the York, Talcott proceeded to Norfolk, where he found the utmost confusion prevailing, and thence, by Lee's orders, he went up the James River to select the most suitable sites for batteries.32
Lee left the location of these works entirely to the discretion of the energetic old colonel, in whose judgment he had full confidence. But when the batteries had been designed and staked off, who was to construct and to arm them? Perhaps, for answer, Lee went back in memory to the siege of Vera Cruz when he had seen sailors quickly mount long guns. Perhaps his choice was that of necessity. Whatever the prompting, he turned over this part of the task to the naval personnel of Virginia, which had been quickly and efficiently organized from resigning United States officers.33 An admirable job the navy made of it. Steadily through the days when it seemed impossible to procure transportation with which to move from Norfolk the cumbersome guns that often weighed more than three tons, the officers worked fast and successfully. There were, however, one or two close races between the Virginia navy on land and the Federal navy in the Chesapeake. At Gloucester Point things came to such a pass that six-pounder field artillery• was employed by the local commander against a Federal warship that seemed to be threatening to enter the river, but within three days thereafter •nine-inch columbiads had been planted, and the battery was prepared to execute Lee's orders to challenge all passing ships and to fire on those that refused to stop.34 Thenceforward the fortification of Gloucester Point went on, with nothing more serious to interrupt it than some friction between the civilian engineer and the military.35 p481 Across the river from Gloucester Point, at the ancient settlement of Yorktown, a battery was also constructed, and forces were slowly accumulated nearby. Once the channel of the York was commanded, the situation around Yorktown was not regarded as immediately threatening, because the land approaches were protected against a surprise attack by an informal armistice between the Virginians and the Federal forces at Fort Monroe.36
On the James, Talcott recommended, at the outset, only the fortification of Jamestown Island. A heavy battery was accordingly built there, almost under the eaves of the crumbling church near the site where the first law-making body in Anglo-Saxon America had met in 1619.37 Along the Rappahannock the people were very apprehensive of an early Federal attack. Lee did not believe this would materialize speedily, but as volunteers had been called out at Fredericksburg, he felt they should be retained in that vicinity. Directing that a small battery be erected below Tappahannock, he had to concern himself more with allaying the fears of the populace than with guarding against an ascent of the river.38 As for the Potomac, little could be done for the defense of Alexandria — nothing, in fact, that would have any other effect than to risk the destruction of the city in case of a Federal offensive. Along the lower tidal estuaries of that river there was likelihood of a naval attack and a possible landing, especially on Aquia Creek, which was the northern terminus of the direct railroad to Richmond. Batteries were accordingly placed around the Aquia. Much correspondence and many divergencies of opinion were developed over the fortification of Mathias Point on the Potomac.39
Considered as a whole, the fortification of the rivers progressed satisfactorily from the beginning and occupied so little of Lee's time that he was able at an early date to turn to the defense of Norfolk and of Harpers Ferry, which jointly constituted the second aspect of his military problem.
The property seized by Virginia at the Norfolk shipyard was p482 found to include 1198 guns,40 and was worth some $7,307,000, according to the state's appraisal,41 but the value to the new government of such a plant and dry dock, with much of the machinery intact,42 could not be computed in terms of money. If Norfolk could be held, at least one and perhaps three of the scuttled warships could be raised and refitted, and the South would have the means of building other naval vessels until perhaps a formidable fleet might be gathered to dispute with the North the control of Hampton Roads. With Norfolk lost, the South would have no shipyard comparably so well suited for the construction of war vessels. Norfolk, moreover, was strategically located in relation to North Carolina. A railroad ran from Norfolk to Weldon. From Norfolk, also, the Elizabeth River and the Dismal Swamp Canal afforded access for light ships to a point within •fifteen miles of Elizabeth City, N. C. To possess Norfolk was, therefore, to hold the key to eastern Carolina.
Unfortunately, the defense of Norfolk was difficult for a government that did not control Hampton Roads. In relation to the rest of the commonwealth, the city was at the end of the Petersburg and Norfolk railroad. This railway ran through Suffolk, near the head of the Nansemond River, which empties into Hampton Roads almost opposite Newport News. From the mouth of the Nansemond, at Pig Point, the distance to Suffolk is only •about eighteen miles, most of it navigable for light transports. By dispatching small ships up the Nansemond, the Federals might easily cut off Norfolk from Richmond and might then send a land force against the navy yard itself, which could readily be turned from the west.
Cognizant of all this, Lee nevertheless prepared to fight for so valuable a prize. When he entered on his duties he found that the governor had authorized the commanding officer at Norfolk to accept additional volunteers as soon as he could use them.43 Work was being started on four batteries laid out by Colonel Talcott — one of fourteen guns at the Naval Hospital, one of p483 fifteen guns at Fort Norfolk, one of twelve guns at Pinner Point, and one of twenty guns at Craney Island.44 Lee directed that the construction of these batteries be pushed and that they be supplemented by works at the mouth of the Nansemond to keep the Federals from ascending that stream. During the weeks that followed he was painfully alert to the possibilities of an attack in that quarter.45 On May 1 there came news that the Federal ships were sounding up the Elizabeth River as if preparing for an attempt to recapture the navy yard.46 This created a near panic in Norfolk47 and forced Lee to take additional precautions quickly. He ordered all the valuable metals away from the town,48 together with the surplus powder;49 he hurried cartridges to the soldiers there, and he directed the commanding officer to make them on his own account.50 To Norfolk, also, he forwarded the first troops that came to Virginia from Georgia and Alabama.51 The result he had to leave to the fortunes of war.
The machinery at Harpers Ferry was scarcely less important to the Confederate army than the Norfolk dry dock and shops were to the sea forces. There had been reports that 4000 to 5000 small arms had been salvaged at Harpers Ferry out of 16,000 reputed to have been in the arsenal when it had been set afire.52 Actually, only 4287 finished small arms had been in storage at Harpers Ferry at the time the Virginians descended upon the place.53 Few had been secured, and most of them had been carried off by individuals. A considerable number of arms, however, had been in the course of manufacture in the shops, which were virtually intact, with all their machinery, thanks to the vigilance of a Southern sympathizer, Master-Armorer Armistead Ball.54 Manifestly, if Virginia could retain Harpers Ferry, the manufacture of small arms would go on more rapidly than if the shops were moved. Much time would inevitably be lost if the machinery had to be taken down, shipped to some distant city and set up p484 again.55 But there was one great difficulty about retaining the shops at Harpers Ferry: a strong expedition sent out from Washington along the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad could cut off communication from the south. A superior force could easily be collected in Pennsylvania and brought by rail to Hagerstown, within •seven miles of Williamsport. Thence it might get in rear of Harpers Ferry. The same thing could be done from the west, via Martinsburg. The town itself was badly placed to stand a siege by an army advancing on any of these routes, because it was in a flat dominated on three sides by very high ground. On the north the "Maryland Heights" were across the Potomac, the new "international frontier." To occupy Maryland Heights was to take the offensive and perhaps to affront the state of Maryland, which was then hesitating, as most Virginians believed, between secession and allegiance to the Union.56
Resolving this dilemma, Lee decided to continue the removal of surplus machinery from Harpers Ferry, which he found in progress,57 and to haul all the machines to Richmond as speedily as possible, but, meantime, to operate the shops as long as any part of the equipment remained.58 While he was planning this there came into his office a tall, sober-faced young professor, in the uniform of the Virginia Military Institute, to consult with him regarding the use of the cadets of that school, who had been brought to Richmond as drillmasters. Lee had not seen him, so far as is known, since they had left Mexico in 1848, but he had recommended him for his post at the institute and of course recognized him as Major Thomas J. Jackson. Governor Letcher had known Jackson in Lexington, where the institute was located, and he nominated him to the convention for commission as colonel of infantry. Simultaneously, he directed Lee to put Jackson in command at Harpers Ferry as soon as he was confirmed.59 The convention accepted the appointment, though the nominee p485 was so little known that some of the members asked, "Who is this Major Jackson?"60 Promptly and cheerfully enough, Lee ordered Jackson to his post,61 doubtless without imagining that circumstance and Governor Letcher had combined to bring under his command the one Southern soldier, above all others, who was to show himself the ideal lieutenant. The only thing to suggest during the next few months that Lee had any consciousness of a special relationship between himself and Jackson is the fact that, from the outset, his orders to Jackson were direct and downright, as if he knew he was dealing with a man who understand and obey, without the stimulus of euphemism or diplomatic flourishes.
When Jackson arrived at Harpers Ferry he found something more than 2000 volunteers and militia there. Increasing hourly, they had little equipment and even less powder and shot. There were too many general officers and too few drillmasters. However, Major General Kenton Harper, the senior militia member on the ground, had acted with promptness and good judgment. On his own initiative he had negotiated with the Maryland local authorities to give him notice of the approach of the enemy, and he had gained their unofficial consent to occupy Maryland Heights, in case of necessity. Jackson acted with the greatest energy. The machinery immediately required in Richmond was moved rapidly; more volunteers were brought up, were organized and were drilled; arms taken from the arsenal at the time of the fire were traced;62 outposts were established; and, though reports reached Virginia that 5000 men were mustered at Chambersburg, Pa., within easy reach of Harpers Ferry,63 a spirit of confidence was gradually created.
Lee was much gratified at Jackson's accomplishments. He prepared to send new troops to him and, in order to keep Harpers Ferry from being turned by way of the Manassas Gap Railroad, he decided to increase the force that Governor Letcher had already sent to Manassas Junction. He had to gamble, of course, whether he would be able to hold Harpers Ferry, but he felt that the machinery in the shops and the strategic value of the position justified the risks.
p486 The construction of river batteries and the defense of Norfolk and of Harpers Ferry were tasks that would not wait on organization. Lee had to use the men and materials at hand. As soon as these first defensive measures had been taken he turned to the third aspect of his problem, which was the selection of officers and the creation of a staff. Until this was done, it went without saying that nothing that had been gained was secure, and that a general call for troops, which was next in order, could not be sent out.
The militia law of Virginia had provided an elaborate organization of staff and line, with four divisions, each of them commanded by a major general. The officers of high rank in the militia were, in the main, "prominent citizens" or elderly men of political influence. The staff of the militia had never functioned and was incomplete in 1861. The volunteers, though numerous, had never been regimented and had no officers above the rank of captain. For the first operations, Governor Letcher, of necessity, had chosen the most available men, chiefly of the militia. He had utilized the company officers of the units that had been ordered on duty, whether of militia or of volunteers. As respected field officers, this arrangement was manifestly so unsatisfactory and so little suited to a real emergency that it had to be changed as speedily as possible. The convention had provided that company officers should be appointed by the governor.64 The convention also invited all "efficient and worthy Virginians . . . in the Army and Navy of the United States to retire therefrom and to enter the service of Virginia." The governor had been directed to assign these officers "such rank as will not reverse the relative rank held by them in the United States service and will at least be equivalent thereto."65 Although some of these officers were at distant posts and would be slow in arriving, the invitation extended by the convention assured ultimately a limited supply of trained soldiers, for nearly all the Virginians of distinction in the Federal army had resigned, except General Scott and Major George H. Thomas. A commission was set up by the governor, at the instance of the p487 advisory council, to correspond with available men66 as the convention had directed. Caution was shown from the outset in giving high commissions to politicians — even to so influential a person as ex-Governor Henry A. Wise.67 To make it certain that professional soldiers were given first consideration, the convention went still further and provided that all names should be submitted to it for confirmation. As Lee himself recommended only experienced men for field command, this requirement imposed no handicap. By May 1 Lee was sending out commissions in the army of Virginia to a number of men who later attained distinction. Besides Jackson, Virginia called on Joseph E. Johnston, John Bankhead Magruder, Richard S. Ewell, Harry Heth, Samuel Jones, J. C. Pemberton, William Mahone, L. L. Lomax, John McCausland,68 and others. As officers of experience reported, they were welcomed and immediately assigned to duty. "I am glad to see you. I want you to help me," Lee told Lieutenant John B. Hood, as he shook that officer's hand on arrival; and before two hours had elapsed Hood was on his way to his post.69 In a few instances Letcher made nominations without consulting either Lee or the advisory council, and the senior naval officers apparently did the same thing, but friction was slight at the outset.70 Lee had reasonable prospect of procuring competent brigade officers and a fair number of good colonels and lieutenant colonels by the time he was ready to bring the full force of volunteers into the field. His task was somewhat complicated, however, because neither he nor any one else knew precisely how desirable a commission in the army of the commonwealth might be. On April 25 the state convention had ratified a pact for temporary union with the Confederacy, and had accepted the Southern Constitution, subject to revocation in case the people of Virginia declined to approve the ordnance of secession at the polls on May 23. The treaty provided that military operations should be under "the chief control and direction of the President of [the] Confederate p488 States, upon the same principles, basis and footing" as if the Old Dominion were a member of the Confederacy.71 This might well mean that every Virginia commission would be vacated. It is to be written down to their love of their native state that few Virginians hesitated on this account.
The organization of the general staff proceeded simultaneously, if less satisfactorily, under an ordinance adopted by the convention on April 21 and amended three days later. The adjutant general's, quartermaster's, subsistence, medical, and pay departments and an engineers corps were set up. Their respective heads were to be named by the governor and were to be confirmed by the advisory council. The adjutant general's department was to be distinct from the office of the state adjutant general, whose functions were limited to the militia.72 As the general staff of the militia proved to be useless, some commanders having been compelled to take the field without a single staff officer,73 it was scrapped in its entirety. Desirable men were not easy to find for the new posts, because most Virginians of military age wished to serve with the combatant units. Engineers were particularly hard to procure.74 By a series of brief general orders Lee sought to establish system as rapidly as practicable within the departments,75 and as a short cut he adopted the old regulations of the United States army wherever applicable.76 If the staff was not so efficient as Lee had hoped, it was chiefly because the men appointed to the Virginia staff realized that the Confederate States would soon assume charge of the departments and might supersede them.
Virtually no attempt was made to set up an intelligence service as a part of the general staff. Reports of the plans and movements of the Federal forces were gleaned from Northern newspapers, or were gathered slowly from travellers and from private letters. p489 Some of the most important movements were wrongly reported or were not discovered at all.77 The Virginia press, in its zeal to inform its readers, informed the enemy as well, and helped to create in Lee a dislike for newspaper methods that he held to the end of his days.78
The personal staff of the commanding general, like the general staff, had to be built up in an atmosphere of impermanence. Although he had started without a single assistant, Lee was determined to employ only trained men, so far as they were procurable. "It is necessary," he wrote in an early veto on nepotism, "that persons on my staff should have a knowledge of their duties and an experience of the wants of the service to enable me to attend to other matters."79 It was an ideal he never fully realized.
Fortunately, R. S. Garnett, who had been Lee's adjutant at West Point, joined Virginia early, and accepted the new post of adjutant general. After April 26, Colonel Garnett was with Lee and relieved him of much of the correspondence and of virtually all the drafting of orders. With Garnett in charge of the office, Lee soon moved his headquarters to the top floor of the Mechanics Institute,80 where he collected a few clerks and, ere long, the staff of two aides and a military secretary allowed him under ordinance of the convention.81 Lieutenant Walter H. Taylor reported soon thereafter and soon made himself indispensable at Lee's headquarters. Other officers assisted him during the summer,82 notably Lieutenant Colonel George Deas and Lieutenant Colonel John A. Washington, the latter a long-time friend in northern Virginia, a gentleman of the highest type and a true aristocrat. Promptness and system were not attained without an effort, and for the first weeks orders were sometimes slow in reaching officers.83
p490 All work had to be done at a furious rate, amid countless interruptions, ceaseless alarms, and the wildest public confusion. Every one wanted to fight; few were willing to recognize that war calls, first of all, for ordered preparation. The public seemed to think that arms and ammunition and all the equipment of an army could be provided instantly and by magic, and that all that was needed was the word to go forward and overwhelm the enemy. Lee had to do a prodigious volume of work, but he kept his head, and by May 1, or about that time, having been in command only one week, he had taken the first necessary steps to fortify the rivers, to hold and to strengthen Norfolk and Harpers Ferry, and to select field and staff officers. This initial stage of his labors brought Lee close to May 5, the date of the expiration of the period that Lincoln had allowed for the dispersion of the secessionists. As evidence began to accumulate that Federal forces were mobilizing in strength and might start an offensive at any time, Lee became more apprehensive for the safety of Harpers Ferry and of Norfolk, and decided to issue the call for a general mobilization of volunteers. That opened a new and a still more difficult period in Virginia's preparations for war.
1 Doc. XIV, Journal of the Va. Convention of 1861.
3 Gwynn on April 26, 1861, was nominated to the Virginia convention as a brigadier general of volunteers, 11 Calendar Virginia State Papers, 121.
4 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series IV, vol. 4, 306 ff. (cited hereafter as N. O. R., with Series I implied except where Roman numerals preceding the letters indicate the second, third, or fourth series); O. R., 2, 771; 1 B. and L., 693.
6 Cf. R. E. Lee to C. F. Lee, April 25, 1861: ". . . I fear it is now out of the power of man [to restore peace to the country]." E. J. Lee, 419‑20; Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 26, 1861: "War is inevitable." R. E. Lee, Jr., 29; Lee to Mrs. Lee, May 13, 1861: "Do not put faith in rumors of adjustment. I see no prospect for it." Jones, L. and L., 140.
7 Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 30, 1861; Fitz Lee, 93.
8 John Echols in 11 S. H. S. P., 452. For a prediction that the war would last four years, see an anonymous and perhaps in part apocryphal account of an interview with some would‑be mediators, quoted in Jones, 483.
9 This reference to "my section of country" is highly important evidence of the promptness with which Lee's allegiance to Virginia became blended with allegiance to the South. It is probably the first reference of its kind in Lee's correspondence.
10 Lee to "My dear Little H," May 5, 1861; New York Times, Aug. 6, 1861, p3, col. 4.
11 May 8, 1861; Virginia Historical Society MSS., presented by Miss Mary Cushing Dame; printed in Richmond News Leader, June 23, 1932. Significantly enough, Lee wrote "the dire calamity of this Civil War," but scratched out "Civil" and wrote "fratricidal."
13 29 S. H. S. P., 165‑66.
18 O. R., 51, part 2, p71. He was not alone in thinking Lee was unsympathetic with the Southern cause. Under date of June 12, 1861, Mrs. Chesnut quoted "Jim Velipegue" [John Villepigue?] as saying: "At heart Robert E. Lee is against us; that I know" (Mrs. Chesnut,º 63).
20 May 13, 1861; Jones, L. and L., 140.
21 Jones, 409‑10; 11 S. H. S. P., 423. Lee was careful to make compensation to the lad. He rode him on his horse subsequently and gave him a copy of G. W. P. Custis's Recollections of General Washington, which Mrs. Lee had republished.
22 11 Calendar Virginia State Papers, 160‑61.
23 See supra, p465; F. H. Smith, Virginia Military Institute, 178; Ordinances Adopted in Secret Session, p6. On April 29, ibid., p6, the convention increased the membership to five by the addition of General Thomas S. Haymond and Robert L. Montague, vice-president of the convention (F. H. Smith, op. cit., 178). The commission served until June 19, 1861, when it was abolished (Ordinances Adopted at the Adjourned Session, 51; IV O. R., 1, 396).
31 Lee to Talcott, April 30, 1861, Talcott MSS. (VHS).
39 O. R., 2, 815, 843, 845, 874, 878, 917, 959, 961, 963‑64, 973, 974, 976; O. R., 51, part 2, pp141‑42. For details of the subsequent attacks on Mathias Point see O. R., 2, 55 and 135 ff., N. O. R., 4, 542 ff.
40 Doc. XL, Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1861, p32.
41 Ibid., Doc. XL, p128.
42 For a statement of what was destroyed by the Federals, see II N. O. R., 2, 109.
43 For a very interesting picture of the condition and activities of the volunteers, see W. H. Taylor: General Lee, 1861‑65 (cited hereafter as Taylor's General Lee), 15‑16. Taylor was one of the early volunteers.
54 Jefferson Davis: The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (cited hereafter as Davis), 1, 317‑18.
55 The shipment in itself would be a tremendous task, for the only railroad from Harpers Ferry that was not in the hands of the enemy was the feeble line to Winchester, •thirty miles to the south. At Winchester the machinery would have to be unloaded, put aboard wagons, and hauled •eighteen miles to Strasburg, whence it could be handled by rail to Manassas Junction and thence via Gordonsville to Richmond.
56 On this important phase of the situation on "the frontier," see Johnston's Narrative, 17‑18. For various plans to assist secessionists in Maryland and for Virginia's dealings with that state, see O. R., 2, 773, 779, 794, 824, 825; O. R., 51, part 2, pp24, 34‑35, 56; 11 Calendar Virginia State Papers, 112.
60 F. H. Smith: Virginia Military Institute, 136.
69 Hood, 16.
70 See the case of T. T. Fauntleroy, Doc. XXII, Virginia Convention of 1861; See also the case of William Smith, former governor, 10 S. H. S. P., 433‑44.
72 Ordinances Adopted in Secret Session, 13.
76 R. S. Garnett to P. St. George Cocke, April 28, 1861; Lee to Cocke, May 16, 1861; Cocke MSS.
79 R. E. Lee to C. F. Lee, April 25, 1861; Long, 102.
80 Hood, 17.
81 Ordinances Adopted in Secret Session, 10.
82 W. H. Taylor: Four Years with General Lee (cited hereafter as Taylor's Four Years), 11; Taylor's General Lee, 21; John M. Brooke and Thos. J. Page of the Virginia Navy served temporarily as aides; O. R., 2, 800‑801; Colonel Deas also acted as inspector general, O. R., 51, part 2, pp77, 140; Cocke MSS., S. O. 68, May 15, 1861; Colonel Washington became aide-de‑camp on May 13, 1861, O. R., 51, part 2, p88; Captain F. H. Smith was named military secretary on May 27, 1861; O. R., 51, part 2, p114. Richmond Enquirer, May 31, 1861, p3, col. 5. For the staff of Lee as it was subsequently developed see Appendix I-4.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Robert E. Lee
(US Park Service)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 22 Jan 14