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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
p159
Chapter XIV

"A Cloud by Day"

Breakfast for General Lee on the morning of June 28 was a matter of snatching up a bit of ham and bread, which he ate as he rode rapidly from the Hogan house at daylight to renew the action.1 When he reached the battlefield, the ambulance detachments were still at work bringing in a multitude of boys, bloody and prostrate, who had spent an age-long night of misery under the stars. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's advanced guard was making its way cautiously through the half-light across the hill to locate the enemy.2 On the left, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson was moving in the same way over the fields and down the road toward Grapevine Bridge.

Soon the couriers began to gallop back to Lee, all of them with the same message: the enemy was gone from the north side of the Chickahominy. Jackson's men had met a cavalry detachment, but it had fled at the first fire of the skirmishers. Many prisoners had been taken, among them Lee's opponent in western Virginia, Brigadier General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John F. Reynolds, who had slept too long in the woods.3 Longstreet found only the dead, the wounded, and the straggling in his front. The bridges over the Chickahominy, built with so much skill and patient labor, had all been burned. The enemy appeared to be concentrating on the south side of the river,4 and apparently had evacuated none of his positions there. All the approaches to the destroyed crossings were under the fire of massed artillery, as if the enemy were prepared to contest pursuit. In effect, the right bank of the river, east of New Bridge, had been made a fortress. At the same time it seemed scarcely conceivable that McClellan, after only one general engagement, had abandoned the railroad by which daily he had been receiving for his great army 600 tons of supplies. He must be preparing to renew p160 the battle, somewhere, for the defense of his line of communications, which, it will be remembered, traversed the Chickahominy at Dispatch Station, six miles downstream from the battlefield, and ran thence twelve miles northeastward to the White House thus:


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Sketch showing proximity of McClellan's line of rail communication
to battlefield of June 27, 1862.º

Obviously, if Lee held to his original plan of campaign and destroyed the Federals' rail communications, he would force the enemy to retreat, to change base, or to fight while he subsisted his men with such supplies as were on hand or could be brought up by narrow, threatened roads. Any one of the three courses offered immediate opportunity to Lee.

p161 Calling a nearby cavalryman, Lee sent him galloping off to find General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart,5 and when Stuart arrived, Lee directed him to move down the Chickahominy, to destroy the railroad, and to get on McClellan's supply line.6 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell's division was likewise ordered to march in support, on a similar mission, preceded by one regiment of cavalry.7 General Longstreet was told to bring up such long-range guns as he could collect and to open on the enemy across the river from his position.8 This was all that could be done at the time. The river stopped reconnaissance; the Federal fire made the rebuilding of the bridges impossible; Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Magruder could not even feel out the lines in his front, because they were protected by heavy earthworks, felled timber, swamps and woods, and formed an impenetrable screen.9

While awaiting developments, Lee rode over part of the ground of the previous day's action, working his way toward the left, looking all the while for the Rockbridge Artillery, with which his youngest son was serving as a private. He had heard that the battery had followed Jackson; he did not know whether Robert was dead or alive. Finally, in front of the McGhee house, he found the battery, which had not been engaged in the action of the 27th.10 A crowd gathered after Lee halted, but Robert was not in it. Search discovered him so soundly asleep under a caisson that calls did not arouse him. Only a vigorous prodding with a sponge staff in the hands of a zealous comrade brought him out, at last, half-dazed. He was well and unscathed, though much the worse for dust and hard marching. Greetings exchanged, Lee rode away, and nobody seemed to think it in any way odd that the son of the commanding general should be serving in the ranks.11

Everywhere that Lee moved that morning officers were afield. The men were strolling about or sleeping, the ambulance detachments continued to take away the wounded, and the burial squads were at their grim labor. Jackson had ridden over from the left p162 to examine the ground of Whiting's advance. He seemed fresh and "brisk enough,"12 though he had been conferring with Stuart long after midnight, and as he examined the obstacles that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood's Texans had surmounted in their incredible charge, his admiration overcame his reserve. "The men who carried this position were soldiers indeed," he said.13 It was the first battlefield many of the troops had ever seen. In the enforced halt of the army, after the mad fury of the previous day, its ghastly stillness bewildered them.

As often as they surveyed the bloody battleground, Lee's eyes turned anxiously to the opposite side of the river, where Longstreet's fire had apparently made no impression on the Federals.14 What was the enemy doing behind those trees that covered the hills above the Chickahominy? How long must the hours of opportunity slip past before Lee would know what move to make? Would McClellan thrust at Richmond? Was he resting and awaiting another attack? Did the woods conceal a retreat? The sun was high and very hot by now;15 and even where the shade was deep, the roads were drying fast. Ere noon had come, Trimble, of Ewell's division, reported that one of his officers had climbed a tree and had seen the enemy moving southward.16

Soon the bright panorama beyond the river-valley began to be obscured. An ever-lengthening cloud began to rise over the tree tops in the calm summer air. It was not the smoke of a silent battle; it was dust, and it could only had been raised by a vast column of laboring horses and marching men. Now there came distant flashes, echoing heavy explosions. Clouds of sulphureous smoke mounted like incense. Magazines were being fired! McClellan was on the move — but why and whither?17 From youngest recruit to commanding general, the Army of Northern Virginia watched and speculated. The dust cloud lengthened toward the horizon; the explosions multiplied; the smoke of fires spread more widely.18 "A retreat," jubilant men exclaimed; "a ruse," the pessimistic Whiting contended.19

Now a dusty, sweating courier on a frothing horse brought a p163 message from Stuart: his cavalry had ridden fast and furiously; they had reached Dispatch Station, had cut the telegraph line to the White House, and had torn up a section of the track of the York River Railroad. A force of the enemy had been encountered. It had been compelled to hurry off down the Chickahominy toward Bottom's Bridge. Before doing so — here was what Stuart most desired General Lee to know — it had burned the railroad trestle across the river.20

As a later message from Trimble confirmed his earlier report that the enemy was moving southward,21 there was no misreading the great news: McClellan was so hard hit or so frightened that he was abandoning his base at the White House. He must be doing one of two things: either he was returning down the Peninsula, by the way he had come, or else he was changing base to the James River, where the Federal sea-power would suffice to refit and revictual him. But which? A retreat down the Peninsula would be an admission of defeat, certain ruin for McClellan's prestige, and a blow to the morale of the North. Militarily easy, it would otherwise be costly. Was McClellan then, attempting to open a new line of communications from James River while holding his lines close to Richmond? Lee was disposed to believe that McClellan would do this rather than endure the humiliation of a retreat down the Peninsula,22 but the stake was so large and the uncertainty so great that Lee was unwilling to launch a decisive manoeuvre on nothing more substantial than a personal opinion.

If McClellan was establishing a base on the James, the whole of the Army of Northern Virginia should of course be concentrated on the south side of the Chickahominy and should be hurled against the enemy while he was in the confusion of change. But if the Federal commander was preparing to retreat down the Peninsula, there was a compelling reason for keeping a large part of the army north of the Chickahominy: the course of the stream was nearly east and west in front of Lee's position, but below that point p164 the river bent more to the southeast and then ran almost south. McClellan was thus in an angle of the Chickahominy, and he could not move down the Peninsula without crossing the river at some of the numerous wagon bridges below Dispatch Station. Were Lee to hurry to the south side in pursuit, McClellan could rapidly move eastward and could put the Chickahominy between him and the Army of Northern Virginia. By crossing once, in pursuit, Lee would have to pass the river again and probably would have to make the second crossing in the face of opposition, perhaps at heavy loss and with considerable delay. By remaining north of the river, Lee had only to march downstream to turn any position McClellan might be disposed to take on the left bank of the Chickahominy, preliminary to a withdrawal down the Peninsula.


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Lee's alternative lines of advance down the Chickahominy, June 28‑29, 1862.º

Risk and probability seemed balanced. As far down the horizon as the dust clouds could be observed, they rose from roads that McClellan would follow whether he was moving his wagon train eastward down the Peninsula or southward toward the James. Not a sign was there of any diminution of strength opposite Lee's own front or opposite that of Magruder and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Huger. It was just such a situation as often paralyzes the initiative in pursuit. All that Lee felt he could safely do was to watch and guard the downstream bridges of the Chickahominy, to which McClellan would soon be coming if he were moving eastward. Ewell was ordered along the Chickahominy from Dispatch Station to Bottom's Bridge. The cavalry was sent to observe the lower crossings.23

Through the long, hot afternoon, Lee waited for further news p165 from Ewell and from Stuart. Neither reported any activity down the river that suggested the approach of the enemy to the Chickahominy bridges. This silence strengthened Lee's belief that the enemy's objective was the James.24 He began to shape his plans for a pursuit on the morning of the 29th. In the hope of getting early information of an evacuation of the enemy's works on the south side, he directed that two of General Longstreet's engineers attempt to cross the Chickahominy during the night and make reconnaissance at close range.25 When General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton arrived with a message from the President during the evening, Lee directed him to return to Magruder's headquarters and to urge the utmost vigilance on the part of that officer's outposts during the night.26 A little later he reiterated this in a direct message to Magruder, who was exceedingly nervous and apprehensive of an attack on his front.27

Thus ended a day that might have changed the whole course of the war if its ample hours of light could have been given to a march on the heels of the enemy. With his orders issued and his plan matured in large part, Lee transferred his headquarters to Doctor Gaines's house, so that he could communicate instantly with Longstreet, who was already established there. By 11 o'clock Lee was in bed and asleep.28


The Author's Notes:

1 G. Wise, who was on duty at the Hogan house, op. cit., p75.

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2 Longstreet, 129‑30.

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3 O. R., 11 part 2, pp571, 593.

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4 Longstreet, loc. cit.

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5 F. M. Myers, p75.

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6 O. R., 11, part 2, p515.

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7 O. R., 12, part 2, pp493, 607. General Trimble, in his report, said that he did not move until the 29th (O. R., 11, part 2, p617), but his statement of the circumstances of the march and Colonel Nisbet's narrative, op. cit., 115, make it certain that he marched on the 28th.

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8 O. R., 11, part 2, p758.

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9 O. R., 11, part 2, p494.

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10 O. R., 11, part 2, p573.

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11 R. E. Lee, Jr., 73‑74. The site of this meeting is fixed by the reference to the proximity of the 10th Virginia, for which see O. R., 11, part 2, p593.

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12 Sorrel, 84.

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13 Hood, 28.

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14 O. R., 11, part 2, p758.

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15 W. W. Chamberlaine, Memoirs of the Civil War (cited hereafter as W. W. Chamberlaine), 21.

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16 O. R., 11, part 2, p617.

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17 O. R., 11, part 2, p494; 3 C. M. H., 294; Marshall, 105.

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18 N. A. Davis, 60.

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19B. and L., 362.

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20 O. R., 11, part 2, pp200, 493, 516, 607. In their formal reports of the campaign, neither Stuart nor Ewell mentioned the destruction of the bridge, and F. M. Myers, op. cit., 76, thought it was the work of Ewell, but Captain James Brady, 1st Penn. Arty., O. R., 11, part 2, p200, stated it was done by him as soon as the Confederates set fire to Dispatch Station.

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21 O. R., 11, part 2, p617.

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22B. and L., 385; 1 D. H. Hill, 135.

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23 O. R., 11, part 2, pp493‑94; Marshall, 105; cf. Taylor's General Lee, 72.

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24 O. R., 11, part 2, p494.

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25 O. R., 11, part 2, p494; Longstreet, 130.

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26 O. R., 11, part 2, pp494, 536. Lee was not too busy to tell Pendleton that his son had come unscathed through the battle of Gaines's Mill. "A fine young man," he added (Pendleton, 194).

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27 O. R., 11, part 2, p662.

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28 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jubal A. Early: Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (cited hereafter as Early), 76, 89. Early said Lee's headquarters were at the "Gaines House," but as Longstreet is known to have been at Doctor Gaines's, it is reasonably certain that this, and not William Gaines's home at Fairfield, was Lee's resting-place for the night.


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