The enactment of the conscript law and the assumption by Johnston of command on the Peninsula did not lessen Lee's labors. They simply turned them into other channels. More time was allowed him during which to study a military situation elsewhere the called for the best judgment the administration could exercise. Affairs on all the fronts were tangled and on some were desperate. Lee was called upon by the President to advise regarding the movements of the army in northern Mississippi, the command of which had passed to Beauregard on the death of Albert Sidney Johnston.1 In East Tennessee, a small force under General Kirby Smith was in the deepest need of equipment and reinforcement, and the task of helping it was assigned to Lee.2 The few scattered regiments in western and southwestern Virginia were threatened by superior Federal forces; unable to send more men, Lee could only urge a slow withdrawal to strong natural positions and the best preparation of the ground for defense.3 To Lee, also, was given the difficult rôle of diplomatist in dealing with Governor Brown of Georgia;4 on his shoulders fell part of the burden of apportioning such arms as reached the Confederacy from abroad;5 on occasion he helped in the work of the commissary and quartermaster-general.6 From West Florida and Alabama,7 from the trans-Mississippi,8 then and thereafter, p31 came calls for reinforcements and appeals for instruction. An unpleasant controversy involving Ripley and Pemberton at Charleston had to be relieved, as far as practicable, a little later.9 In dealing with all these distant operations, Lee laid down the sound principle, expressed in a letter to the commanding officer in Florida, that where he did not know the "particular necessities" of a local situation he could only make general suggestions and would not send "definite instructions."10
His chief attention, after April 17, Lee gave to operations in northern Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley. When Johnston had left the Rapidan, he had directed Jackson and Ewell to communicate with him through the adjutant general's office.11 The President evidently reasoned that Johnston would be engrossed in operations on the Peninsula and that the campaign north and northwest of Richmond could be managed more promptly and satisfactorily from the capital than from Johnston's headquarters. No formal orders were issued and the nominal command of Johnston over Ewell and Jackson was not reduced, but dispatches from them were referred to Lee, evidently with instructions to supervise the movements of these two officers as long as Johnston was at a distance from Richmond. It was a most embarrassing arrangement. Johnston was excessively sensitive on all that touched his authority. Lee had to defer to the chief executive, as always, while avoiding offense to Johnston. He had to fashion operations of the utmost gravity, but with no assurance whatsoever that he would be allowed to complete the strategical combinations he might undertake. His work, in short, had to be one of tactful substitution, now for Davis, now for Johnston.
Distribution of Confederate forces and assumed position of the Union armies in Virginia, April 21, 1862.
It was pressing work, too, because important changes had occurred since Johnston had marched from the Rapidan, leaving on that line and at Fredericksburg only a thin detachment of observation. The strength of the Federals under McDowell in northern Virginia was still unknown, but was assumed to be great. On April 21 this army, or a large part of it, was believed to be debarking at Aquia Creek, north of Fredericksburg. Its p32 advanced guard, estimated at 5000, had reached the Rappahannock opposite that city. In its front was only Field's brigade, about 2500 men, which had withdrawn •fourteen miles south of Fredericksburg to get behind streams that were then very high.
•Forty-seven miles west of Fredericksburg, at Gordonsville, lay the greater part of Ewell's division, now 8500 strong.12 This force was the mobile reserve designed to be moved eastward to Fredericksburg or Richmond or across the Blue Ridge to support Jackson, as required. At Swift Run Gap, •twenty-five miles northeast of Staunton, Jackson had 6000 men, in the face of General N. P. Banks, whose strength in the Shenandoah Valley was not known but was thought to be much in excess of Jackson's.13 Detachments from Banks and from McDowell were vaguely reported at various points between Winchester and Manassas Junction.
Among them Field, Ewell, and Jackson had 17,000 men from east to west over a front of •eighty-three miles. The only troops then available in Virginia, outside Johnston's enlarged command east of Richmond, were the three insignificant forces covering the roads from western Virginia — Edward Johnson's 2800, Heth's 1500, and Marshall's 1500. Marshall was at too great a distance to help Jackson. Heth probably was too remote. Edward Johnson's little command on the Parkersburg road had been compelled to withdraw close to Staunton in the face of Milroy's advanced guard of Frémont's army, which was believed to outnumber it very greatly.14 Johnson was more apt to need help than to be able to render it.
On April 21 the Federals had the greatest opportunity the war in Virginia was to offer them until the late winter of 1864‑65. Correspondingly, the Confederate position was one of acutest danger. The odds against the troops north, west, and northwest of Richmond were even greater than the Confederates supposed — 65,000 to 24,000.15 If Banks and Frémont occupied Jackson and p34 Ewell, then a sudden thrust across the Rappahannock by the force under McDowell would of course overwhelm Field's little command. Richmond would be only •sixty miles to the southward, less than five easy marches, and McDowell would be on Johnston's line of communications before that officer could return to Richmond. Indeed, a quick attack by McClellan might mean the destruction of Johnston ere he could reach the defenses of the capital. Even if the Federal armies were not then capable of launching four offensives simultaneously, it seemed almost certain that McClellan and McDowell could unite in front of Richmond. They could invest the city from the north, the east, and the south and either reduce it with their superior artillery or force the immediate retreat of Johnston to North Carolina. Thus the least result of vigorous, joint action by the Federals would be that they would soon occupy the whole of Virginia, and the reasonably attainable outcome would be the decisive defeat of the one formidable army then under the Southern flag. The downfall of the Confederacy by midsummer was a distinct possibility.
Johnston and Lee were both alive to this danger, but they took fundamentally different views of the best method to meet it. Johnston changed his proposals from time to time, as was natural, but, generally speaking, he continued to urge that concentration be met with concentration — that as McClellan and McDowell were almost certain to form a junction, they should be allowed to advance to a great distance from their bases and should then be attacked by all the Confederate forces from the Rapidan to the Savannah. Lee's strategy, on the other hand, reduced to the simplest formula, was not to meet concentration with concentration but to occupy the Federals on the Peninsula and to undertake an offensive-defensive in northern Virginia that would prevent a Federal concentration. Lee's was the bolder policy, but in a long view it was the more prudent course. It was better to keep the Federals away from Richmond than to attempt to fight a battle there, much less to stand a siege. Knowing the strength of the North, Lee never willingly accepted investment in a fixed position. His study of Napoleon warned him of the danger of such a course. He sought always to keep the enemy at a distance from his base, and when a siege was threatened, his impulse was p35 to avoid it by a counter-stroke. If a siege was inevitable or the enemy was concentrated in a single army, then, of course, Lee was as insistent as Johnston could have been on the fullest possible concentration.
Because great stakes hung on the throw, and because troop-movements in northern Virginia from April 17 to May 25 represent the first development of some of the most distinctive methods Lee was subsequently to employ, the student of war will find interest in every line of the correspondence that now opened between Lee and the commanding officers on the Rappahannock and in the valley.
Lee's fundamental problem was to prevent the reinforcement of McClellan from any quarter. Immediately, as he saw it, the point of danger was Fredericksburg, where McDowell might establish a base for an advance to McClellan's flank.16 The Rappahannock city was so feebly defended that Field's little brigade could not retard, much less halt, a Federal offensive. Before anything else was done, therefore, the Fredericksburg line had to be strengthened against demonstrations that might show the weakness of the defending force. Lee felt out Johnston to search if that officer could release any of the troops recently sent to the Peninsula, but was assured that this was impossible.17 Reinforcements had to come from elsewhere. Lee could not strip the Carolina and Georgia coast, as Johnston had suggested, but, as he had no other source from which to get men, he adopted the expedient of calling for small forces from several quarters, on the theory that he would not take enough men from any army to destroy its powers of resistance. In case it were attacked, the force from which he drew reinforcements would still be strong enough to hold out until he could replace the men he had ordered elsewhere. Like a hard-pressed debtor, he had to borrow where he could to meet his most pressing obligations, trusting that, if his new creditors became troublesome, the future would bring the means with which to repay them. Already, on April 19, Lee had ordered to Richmond one regiment from North Carolina, one from South Carolina, and one from Georgia.18 Now, p36 as Burnside was quiet on the North Carolina coast, Lee decided to take the chance that he would remain so, or could be delayed if he attempted to advance. He accordingly ordered to Virginia Anderson's brigade of 4000 from Holmes's North Carolina army.19 From South Carolina Gregg's fine brigade of 3500 was called, and a regiment was scraped together around Richmond to complete it.20 In this way the force at Fredericksburg, which was to pass to the direct command of General Jos. R. Anderson, would be raised to 13,000 men by April 28, or about that time.21 Pending the arrival of Anderson with these reinforcements, Field's orders were "to preserve a firm front to the enemy, to keep yourself accurately advised of his strength and movements, and to communicate anything of importance that may occur at once to this office."22
Thirteen thousand troops on the Rappahannock manifestly could put up a more formidable resistance than 2500 could, but they could not prevent an advance by such an army as McDowell was rightly assumed to command. Something more must be done. Either enough additional force had to be gathered on the Rappahannock to resist McDowell successfully, and to prevent his union with McClellan in front of Richmond, or else McDowell had to be held north of the Rappahannock and deterred from advancing. Only the 8800 of Jackson and Edward Johnson in the Shenandoah Valley and Ewell's 8000 at Gordonsville could be counted on for either purpose, and they, of course, were threatened by Banks and Frémont.
Lee promptly decided how he would utilize these troops in the crisis. On April 21, before any of Field's reinforcements had reached him, Lee wrote one of the most historic of all his military dispatches. It was addressed to Jackson. In it, Lee outlined the situation in front of Fredericksburg and suggested three possibilities. First, if Jackson felt that he could drive Banks down the valley by calling up Ewell's division, he was advised to do so. This, said Lee, "will prove a great relief to the pressure on p37 Fredericksburg." If, secondly, Banks was too strong to be attacked, and Jackson thought that Ewell should be in supporting distance, it would be well to place Ewell between Richmond and Fredericksburg, that was to say, in front of the line of the Virginia Central Railroad, near Hanover Junction, whence he could be moved with equal speed by rail to support Jackson, Field, or even Johnston, in case the battle went against the Confederates on the Peninsula. If, in the third place, Jackson believed that he could hold Banks without assistance, then Lee recommended that Ewell be made ready to reinforce Field.23 In a word, instead of waiting for Frémont and Banks to crush Jackson and Ewell, while McDowell disposed of Field and moved to unite with McClellan, Lee proposed to anticipate all of them, to take the initiative, and so to occupy McDowell that he could not advance from the line of the Rappahannock. "I have hoped," he wrote Jackson four days later, "in the present divided condition of the enemy's forces that a successful blow may be dealt them by a rapid combination of our troops before they can be strengthened themselves either in position or by re-enforcements."24
While submitting three plans to Jackson, over whom, it must be remembered, he had no formal command, Lee manifestly favored an attack by Jackson and Ewell on Banks. In the course of his correspondence with the two Confederate commanders during the fortnight following the letter of April 21, Lee wrote few dispatches in which he did not dwell on this possibility. When it seemed that Jackson could not attempt to assail Banks directly, Lee suggested that Jackson and Ewell advance east of the main Federal force in the Shenandoah Valley and destroy Banks's communications, either around Warrenton or at White Plains and Salem. He was altogether for an immediate offensive-defensive. "The blow, wherever struck, must, to be successful, be sudden and heavy" — such was his admonition.25
Jackson, at this time, did not feel strong enough to attack p38 Banks, even with Ewell's support, unless Lee could send him 5000 men. Lee could not do this,26 though he cherished a momentary hope of being able to dispatch Heth to his support.27 As an alternative to an immediate offensive against Banks, Jackson proposed that he unite with Edward Johnson, who was being pressed back on Staunton. He could then attack Milroy, leading Frémont's advanced force, Jackson reasoned, and if he succeeded in defeating Milroy, he could take Edward Johnson and Ewell, strike Banks, and then come east of the Blue Ridge to Fredericksburg or to any other threatened point. Doubtful whether it was practicable at that moment to attack Banks, Lee, on May 1, approved Jackson's plan for joint operations with Edward Johnson west of Staunton, but he kept reverting to the desirability of an offensive against Banks. Lee was willing that the offensive should be undertaken at Fredericksburg, if nothing else could be done, but he continued of opinion that the best way to hold the line of the Rappahannock was to strike in the valley.28
It has generally been assumed that, in urging this course, Lee was actuated by a conviction that he could play on President Lincoln's fears for the safety of Washington. Those who argue this do so in a knowledge of facts with which Lee could not possibly have been acquainted at this time. After the battle of Winchester, Lee discovered that President Lincoln would make almost any military sacrifice and forego any offensive plan in order to save Washington from the risk of capture, but in early May Lee's strategy was based on military considerations only. He believed that an advance down the valley would so threaten the communications of an army operating north of the Rappahannock as to keep it from advancing on Richmond. No evidence of any larger purpose than this, on Lee's part, can be adduced as of this date.
The Shenandoah Valley and the field of manoeuvre directly east of the valley.
"STONEWALL" JACKSON —
THE "WINCHESTER PHOTOGRAPH"
Taken in the winter of 1861‑62, when he was a major general and only a few months before the famous "Valley Campaign." Mrs. Jackson regarded this as the best likeness of her husband.
1 Lee had been consulted by the President prior to Johnston's demise and had drafted an important dispatch at the instance of Mr. Davis. W. P. Johnston: Life of Albert Sidney Johnston, 521. For Lee's later instructions to Beauregard, see O. R., 10, part 1, p775, part 2, p546.
11 Johnston's Narrative, 128‑29.
12 Including artillery.
13 Actually it was around 21,000, somewhat scattered.
14 In reality, Frémont had 4087 in the Cheat Mountain district on April 30, according to his return, 8494 in the District of the Kanawha, and on his lines of communication, 4640; total, 17,221 (O. R., 12, part 3, p121).
15 These figures of Federal strength include Blenker's division, which was moved about so much as to be almost useless. McDowell, whose strength in April is hard to determine, is here credited with 30,000. His May returns, which include some units previously with Banks, show 47,484 (O. R., 12, part 3, p309).
26 O. R., 12, part 3, p875. This letter was prepared with much care. The original draft in the Taylor MSS. is dated April 29 and shows interlineations that appear in a still-different form in the printed text. These differences are not very material, but they emphasize Lee's concern lest any reduction of force in front of Fredericksburg endanger Richmond or threaten the rear of the army on the Peninsula.
29 R. Taylor, 49.
30 R. Taylor, 37.
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Robert E. Lee
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