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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. II
p1
Chapter I

Lee Is Given an Impossible Assignment

During the terrible months Lee had been in western Virginia, mountains had broken the winds of contention and distance had kept from him the worst alarms. In South Carolina and in Georgia, engrossed in the details of a difficult defense, he had heard little of the confidential news that came only to the President and to the War Department. Now that he was back at the storm-centre of the Southern struggle, consulted by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis and having free access to the files, he soon learned the dark inwardness of a situation that had changed much for the worse since he had left the Confederate capital in November.

Disaster was in the air. The defeats at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson had led the Confederates under Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Albert Sidney Johnston to evacuate most of Kentucky and part of western Tennessee. The newspapers that Lee read on his arrival in Richmond contained the gloomy intelligence that Fort Columbus, the advanced Confederate position on the Mississippi, thirty miles south of the confluence of the Ohio, had been abandoned by his old West Point friend, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Leonidas Polk. There was danger that all the Southern posts on the river, from Columbus as far down as Memphis or beyond, would fall to the victorious and overwhelming Federal forces. Nowhere, since a small Federal column had been destroyed at Ball's Bluff on the Potomac, October 22, 1861,a had there been a substantial Confederate success on land to relieve the gathering gloom. Southern commissioners in Europe had not been received at a single court. "Foreign intervention," which optimists had assured the country would certainly come by February 1, when the stores of cotton and tobacco would be exhausted overseas, seemed much more remote than it had been immediately after the victory at Manassas.1

p2 The worst was not known, even to Congress. The Confederacy's supply of powder was nearly exhausted. The arsenals were almost bare of weapons. Expected shipments of arms from across the Atlantic were being delayed by a blockade that was already demonstrating the silent, decisive influence of sea-power, which the Confederates were powerless to combat. The army might soon be without the means to fight. Hope of relieving the blockade was raised for a day when the frigate Merrimac, cut down to the water's edge and covered with railroad iron, awkwardly steamed forth from Norfolk on March 8 as the Confederate ram Virginia and destroyed the Congress and the Cumberland, but she herself was challenged the next day by an ironclad as curious as herself, the Monitor.

The faith of the public had fallen with the misfortunes of their cause. Gone was the old boastfulness that had humiliated Lee. Silent were the platform-patriots who had predicted the complete defeat of the United States within ninety days after the first gun had been fired. The prophets had been confounded, the weak were despairing, the courageous were anxious. The South at length had realized, also, that the immensely larger man-power and resources of the North were being utilized in the creation of vast armies, perfectly equipped. In the passion of 1861, hotheads had relied on "Southern valor" and had refused to concede that 23,000,000 people had any advantage over an opposing 9,000,000; but now that the Northern ports were receiving hundreds of tons of equipment from Europe, and Northern factories were being made ready to supply every want of any force that might be called into the field, the people of the South measured the odds against them accurately enough. Confederates no longer scoffed when indiscreet Northern newspapers and occasional Southern sympathizers who made their way through the lines told disquieting stories of the might and magnitude of the host that Lee's industrious friend of the Mexican campaign, General George B. McClellan, had brought together since he had taken command in Washington.

Not only were the Confederates depressed and outnumbered but they were preparing to abandon the lines that General Joseph E. Johnston had held, close to Washington, and almost on the p3 frontier of Virginia, since the victory of Manassas eight months before. The news that Johnston was almost on the eve of a general retreat was the most alarming of all the secrets that Lee heard in the electric atmosphere of the President's office.

Five times during the winter, attacks on Johnston's inferior force had been predicted,2 and with the coming of spring a great Federal advance was certain. Lee himself, similarly placed at a later time, held to a policy of open manoeuvre, keeping the enemy as far from Richmond as possible and never abandoning the line of the Rappahannock if he could safely defend it. He probably would have declared for similar strategy had the choice been left to him now.3 Johnston's withdrawal, however, had been agreed upon at a conference between himself and Davis on February 20. It was not Lee's nature to dispute what had already been determined by superior authority and was, moreover, virtually in process of execution. His observant eye must have discovered that the prospective movement was increasing the unhappy friction between Davis and Johnston that had antedated even the battle of Manassas. The President had accepted the view that the army could not successfully resist a heavy offensive by superior forces that could use their sea-power to land troops in rear of Johnston's right flank on the Potomac, just north of Fredericksburg, which Johnston believed they were preparing to do.4 The advantages of standing on the line of the Rappahannock River, in closer touch with the other forces in Virginia, had not been overlooked by the President. Yet no sooner had the withdrawal been sanctioned than the nervous Davis and the irascible Johnston disagreed as to the time it should begin and the necessity of leaving stores behind. Davis admonished but Johnston kept his own counsel, determined to withdraw when and whither his judgment dictated.5

A week and more Lee spent in study of the general situation, without definite assignment to duty. On March 13 there were important developments. Davis then received his first official information that Johnston had evacuated the Manassas line on p4 March 8‑9, had retreated twenty-five miles southward along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, and had halted his army on either side of the north fork of the Rappahannock River.6 The same day, unknown to the Confederates, a Union council of war at McClellan's headquarters decided on the line of advance for the vast Army of the Potomac that was now equipped to the last tent-peg.7 And on that identical, ill-omened 13th, Lee received an impossible assignment to duty.

Behind it lay conflict between the President and Congress. The dissatisfaction of that body had been directed first to a campaign against Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of War, who had been assailed for failure to send munitions to General Henry A. Wise at Roanoke Island, N. C.8 Benjamin had the most valid of excuses — that there were no munitions to send — but both he and the President deemed it better to accept unmerited censure in silence than to expose to the enemy the weakness of the South.9 The attack on Benjamin was so bitter that it manifestly would soon force the President to supplant him, but that was not the only grievance of Congress. Mr. Davis's disposition to direct military operations in person had provoked much criticism. Antagonism to him had been growing for some weeks,10 though cool heads had sought a compromise. Reasoning that the first need was a new Secretary of War, and that the President had confidence in Lee, Congress had passed an act providing that, if a general of the army were appointed Secretary of War, he would not lose his rank.11 This was a direct invitation to Mr. Davis to appoint Lee. When the President duly had signed the measure on February 27,12 it was immediately assumed that Lee would be named,13 but the President concluded that a soldier would not make a good secretary and made no appointment. Instead, he asked in effect that Congress provide him with two secretaries, one civil and one military, and that legislation creating the post of commanding p5 general be enacted, so that the appointee could act, in a sense, as military or technical head of the War Department.14 Congress acquiesced, but in drafting a new bill the President's enemies seem to have had equal hand with his friends. When the measure was finally laid before him, a few days after Lee's return, it provided for a commanding general, directed the President to nominate such an officer to the Senate, and authorized the officer so named to take personal command of any army in the field at any time.15 Again it was expected that Davis would name Lee,16 but the President saw in the move an invasion of his constitutional rights as commander-in‑chief of the army and navy. Personal affronts he might swallow, with more of grace than was usually credited to him, but strict construction of the organic law was a matter of political conscience, for which he would do battle even if the enemy's divisions were at the doors of the capitol. On March 10 the bill came to him. Within three days his political experience had suggested a means of maintaining his rights as commander-in‑chief and of accomplishing the desired object. He vetoed the measure and simultaneously assigned General Lee "to duty at the seat of government," charged "under the direction of the President" — that phrase asserted his authority — "with the conduct of military operations in the armies of the Confederacy."17 Congress perforce sustained his veto and promptly re-enacted that part of the original bill providing a staff for the general so designated to duty.18 Davis thereby won a tactical victory and followed it up by reorganizing his Cabinet on March 17, naming Benjamin as Secretary of State and placing the war office under George W. Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson and a very popular Virginian.19 Lee's ability as an administrator gives interest to speculation as to what might have happened if he had been named Secretary of War, but his new position was manifestly difficult and anomalous. The Charleston p6 Mercury said that he was being reduced "from a commanding general to an orderly sergeant."20 Lee himself said: "It will give me great pleasure to do anything I can to relieve [the President] and serve the country, but I cannot see either advantage or pleasure in my duties. But I will not complain, but do the best I can."21 Few of his friends congratulated him: they knew too well the embarrassments Lee had to anticipate.22

Once appointed, Lee was not given an hour in which to organize his staff or to add to such understanding of the situation as he had been able to get from a brief study of the tangled records of the adjutant general's office during the interval between his arrival in Richmond and his assumption of command on March 14.23 Every mail told of some added menace to Southern arms. The telegraph clicked off an endless report of new calamities. People, press, and politicians, in a spirit as dark as that of the dripping, mournful weather,24 demanded action far beyond the feeble resources of a bewildered war office.

The duties of the post were to prove vexing and varied and were never to be finished. He could not know when the President would call him to a long, futile conference,25 or what new problem from an unfamiliar field a hard-beset commander would present by telegraph with a plea for instant answer. One hour he might be puzzling over a complicated and obscure situation in Tennessee; the next he might be expected to advise which heavy guns should be moved from a Florida post and where they should be sent. Some dispositions were to be left completely to him by the President. Other matters Mr. Davis was to handle in person or was to take from him, half-completed. Within less than three months he was to be called upon to pass, in some form, on operations in every Southern state, and was besides to discharge some of the duties of the commissary general and quartermaster general. Broadly speaking, Davis entrusted to him the minor, vexatious matters of detail and the counselling of p7 commanders in charge of the smaller armies. On the larger strategic issues the President usually consulted him and was often guided by his advice, but in no single instance was Lee given a free hand to initiate and direct to full completion any plan of magnitude.26 He had to work by suggestion rather than by command, and sometimes, when he picked up a task that had been assigned him and then transferred to some one else, he was required to correct errors by swift action. Some public men were quick to see the good he accomplished, but in the hearts of others jealousies were aroused.27 Sensitive spirits were encountered. Public confidence in his qualities as a commander was not what it had been in 1861. In his whole career there was not a period of more thankless service, but there were few, if any, during which he contributed more to sustain the Confederate cause.


The Author's Notes:

1 Charles Marshall: An Aide de Camp of Lee, edited by General Sir Frederick Maurice (cited hereafter as Marshall), 19.

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2 O. R., 5, 957 ff., 985, 997, 1006‑7, 1019.

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3 Colonel John S. Mosby in his Memoirs, 375, affirmed that General Lee told him early in 1865 that Johnston should not have fallen back in 1862 but should have advanced on Washington.

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4 Johnston's Narrative, 101‑2.

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5 O. R., 5, 1079, 1083, 1088; 1 Davis, 462 ff.; Johnston's Narrative, 96 ff.

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6 Johnston's Narrative, 103‑4; O. R., 5, 527, 1096, 1097, 1101‑2.

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7 O. R., 11, part 3, pp58‑59.

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8 See supra, Vol. I, p625.

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9 Marshall, 16.

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10 1 R. W. C. D., 107.

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11 IV O. R., 1, 954.

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12 Ibid.

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13 Charleston Mercury, Feb. 28, 1862; O. R., 5, 1083. As if to prepare the way for the bill, The Richmond Dispatch of Feb. 18 had published a laudatory editorial on Lee, in which this language was employed: ". . . we venture to say that the time will yet come when his superior abilities will be vindicated, both to his own renown and the glory of his country."

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14 This explanation is given in 2 Southern Review, 239‑40. The article is unsigned but almost certainly was written by Doctor A. T. Bledsoe, who had been chief of the bureau of war and therefore spoke from personal knowledge.

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15 Text in IV O. R., 1, 997‑998. Journal C. S. Congress, 2, 35, 37, 47; 44 S. H. S. P., 80.

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16 Charleston Mercury, March 8, 1862; Howell Cobb to John B. Lamar, in U. I. Phillips's Correspondence of Toombs, etc., 591.

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17 O. R., 5, 1099; National Intelligencer, April 14, 1862.

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18 IV O. R., 997‑98, 1021;º 1 R. W. C. D., 117.

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19 IV O. R., 1, 1005; De Leon, 164.

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20 Quoted in The National Intelligencer, April 14, 1862. Cf. Charleston Mercury, March 24, 1862.

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21 Lee to Mrs. Lee, March 14, 1862; R. E. Lee, Jr., 66‑67.

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22 The only felicitations that appear in the records are those of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.J. B. Magruder (O. R., 9, 65‑67) and General Humphrey Marshall (O. R., 10, part 2, p34).

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23 For his study of the records, see O. R., 5, 1098; O. R., 10, part 2, pp320, 330‑31.

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24 McCabe, 85.

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25 Marshall, 7.

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26 Cf. Richmond Whig, March 9, 1864: "The President never for a moment relinquished his rights as Commander-in‑chief, and never entertained the first thought of doing so. This earth holds not the human being more jealous of his constitutional rights than Mr. Davis, and among those rights that to which he clings with death-like tenacity is well known to be the supreme and exclusive control of military operations. Nothing ever did or ever will induce him to relinquish one tittle of this right. If, during the short period in which General Lee occupied the complimentary position of Commanding General, any portion of the Confederacy was neglected, the fault was not General Lee's. He had not the power, and, as we suspect, did not desire the power, to take the direction of military affairs out of the hands of the President. He was simply an adviser in military affairs, just as Mr. Mallory is in naval and Mr. Northrop in commissary affairs. He had no control, nor, of course, responsibility. That rests elsewhere."

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27 Cf. letters to T. R. R. Cobb, March 16, 20, 1862; 28 S. H. S. P., 291.


Thayer's Note:

a For an excellent collection of detailed primary sources on the battle of Ball's Bluff, see this page.


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