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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
p41
Chapter V

The Battle Brought Closer to Richmond

Affairs were more desperate than ever when Lee made his gamble on Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson and that strange man led his regiments mysteriously away into the mountains. Admiral Farragut on April 24 passed with his fleet the forts guarding the Mississippi, and the next day captured New Orleans, the largest, richest city of the Confederacy. Civilian Richmond trembled to think that what had happened in the Louisiana metropolisa might be repeated on their streets.1 The Federals under Burnside waked up. On the 26th they occupied Fort Macon, the evacuation of which Lee had previously urged.2 Signs were multiplying that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant was preparing to launch an offensive against Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard in northern Mississippi. The news from the Virginia Peninsula was bad. Almost every message from Johnston after April 24 contained some hint of an early retreat from Yorktown, which he expected the Federals to turn with their gunboats as soon as they had silenced the batteries.3 In the face of strong arguments to the contrary by the Secretary of War,4 Johnston on April 27 had notified the President that he was preparing to abandon his position and had renewed his argument for a general concentration in front of Richmond.5 His dispatches had requested that bridges across the Chickahominy be constructed as rapidly as possible — an intimation that he purposed to retire close to the city.6 In a letter to Lee on the 29th Johnston mentioned the evacuation of Richmond as a possibility that had to be considered.7

Then, on May 1, the very day when Lee sanctioned Jackson's move against Milroy, word came from Johnston that he intended to evacuate Yorktown on the night of May 2‑3. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis at once p42 urged Johnston to delay his retreat long enough to permit the removal of the invaluable naval supplies from Norfolk,8 where Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Huger, by his own admission, was in a cul de sac.9 The Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy prepared to go to Norfolk to see what could be saved there.10 Lee did not lose faith, but even he was shaken and, as always, he looked to Heaven for deliverance. "We have received some heavy blows lately," he wrote on April 26, "from the effects of which, I trust, a merciful God will deliver us."11 His was not a nature, however, to leave to God what man could perform. Still believing that the enemy could be delayed on the lower Peninsula,12 he undertook to see if Johnston would not try to hold on a few days longer. Johnston had changed his mind about the general strategy and had reverted to the second of the two plans he had presented at the council of war at Richmond on April 14 — the plan, that is, for a general offensive across the Potomac instead of a concentration and battle in front of Richmond.13 Lee assured him the President was considering the feasibility of such a move — to be undertaken at a later date of course — and the next day, May 2, he wrote Johnston again, explaining that time was needed to complete the evacuation of Norfolk and, if possible, to bring the unfinished gunboats up James River. Lee went on: "All the time that can be gained will facilitate these operations. It is not known under what necessity you are acting or how far you can delay the movements of the enemy, who it is presumed will move up York River as soon as opened to him to annoy your flank. His advance on land can be retarded, and he might be delayed in effecting a landing on York River until your stores are withdrawn. The safety of all your ammunition is of the highest importance, and I feel every assurance that everything that can be accomplished by forethought, energy and skill on your part will be done. If it is possible for the Virginia, which upon the fall of Norfolk must be destroyed, to run into Yorktown at the last minute and destroy the enemy's gunboats and transports, it would greatly cripple his present and p43 future movements, relieve your army from pursuit, and prevent its meeting the same army in Northern Virginia."14

It was in vain that Lee held out in his final sentence the possibility that the administration might ultimately approve Johnston's plan for a new offensive in the territory from which his army had withdrawn. Johnston had made up his mind that McClellan would soon silence his water-batteries. He had been advised, moreover, that the pilots did not believe the Virginia could run past the Federal fleet in Hampton Roads and reach the York or enter Poquoson River in rear of McClellan's army.15

On the 4th came news that Johnston, without further notice to the War Department, had removed his whole army from the Yorktown line and was retreating up the Peninsula.16 Simultaneously Lee received the ominous tidings that Federal gunboats had passed up the York and had reached West Point, thirty-seven miles from Richmond. Lee at once telegraphed to Johnston, tactfully inquiring if light artillery might be sent to the Pamunkey to prevent the Federal ascent of that river from West Point.17 No reply came from Johnston, nor any report on his movements. The authorities in Richmond were at least as much in the dark as the enemy was, concerning the plans of the general whose 55,000 troops were the chief reliance of the carefully.

The day of the evacuation of Yorktown was a Sunday, when all Richmond went to church to pray for the army. As anxious worshippers started home, word spread that the sick from the lower Peninsula were arriving and were making their way to the hospital at Camp Winder. Carriages at once were hurried to the street; wagons were hitched; Sunday dinners, uneaten, were sent to the hungry, muddy men.18 They could tell little of what had happened except that when they had been sent from Yorktown, the army was preparing to leave the heavy guns in position19 and to take the road toward Richmond.

p44 Monday, the 5th, brought rumors of a bloody action at Williamsburg; Tuesday confirmed the story and added dark details of a stubborn rearguard battle, so closely contested that Johnston had been forced to leave his wounded in the rain and to hurry on without making a stand on the support-line that Lee had drawn in front of Williamsburg.20 And still nothing official from Johnston! All that Lee could do, in the absence of any precise knowledge of Johnston's plans, was to prepare for a battle close to Richmond. Despite high water, he endeavored to speed the slowly progressing work on the James River defenses and channel obstructions, seven miles below the city.21 From Norfolk, he sought to remove to Richmond the heavy guns that might supplement those already being placed to keep the enemy from ascending the river.22 He urged, moreover, that the Virginia hold the mouth of the river as long as possible, to cover Johnston's flank on that stream.23 Lee's chief hope of saving Richmond he still pinned to the projected operations in northern Virginia. Looking beyond Jackson's attack on Milroy to his cherished offensive against Banks,24 he was scouring the seaboard for troops to reinforce Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell, while Johnson's unhappy troops were marching up the Peninsula, with the enemy in leisurely pursuit.


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Southside Virginia and the eastern approaches to Richmond.

At last, on May 7, came a dispatch from Johnston, the first that appears in the published records bearing date subsequent to the evacuation of Yorktown. It told of the presence of a fleet of ironclads and transports at West Point and of Johnston's apprehension for the safety of Richmond. There was no reference in the message to Johnston's plan of operations and no hint of any purpose to make an early stand. Lee had to draw his own inference from the fact that Johnston was then at Barhamsville, only thirty-five miles from Richmond, and mentioned that his army was moving in two columns, up roads that led straight to the capital. The only reassurance to be had from the paper was p45 that Johnston held a position from which he could meet any offensive directed against his flank by way of York River.25

The next day brought even more disquieting evidence of the field-commander's state of mind. His known and deplored jealousy as to his prerogatives broke out, most inopportunely, in a long, sharply phrased letter of many complaints: Without his knowledge, he said, troops under his command on the south side of the James had been ordered about by Lee; he had not been informed concerning operations on the Fredericksburg front; nothing had been said to him as to the placing of obstructions in the Pamunkey: he had no control over work on the Richmond defenses. "My authority," he said, "does not extend beyond the troops immediately around me. I request therefore to be relieved of a merely nominal geographical command. The service will gain thereby the unity of command, which is essential in war."26

The feeling disclosed in this letter had been shown before by Johnston in smaller things, when the possible consequences of discord had not been so serious. After Bull Run he had wrathfully refused to accept a staff officer because he thought Lee had no right to send him,27 and his grievance over rank had increased as he had meditated upon it.28 Truth was, Johnston possessed very great ability as a strategist and was in many of his impulses generous and warm-hearted, but his temper was apt to get out of control when he felt his authority was ignored. Although he was able to win and to hold the affection of his subordinates, he was suspicious, reserved, and wholly lacking in the arts of conciliation when dealing with his superiors. In this crisis, burdened with responsibility, and conscious that he did not possess the good opinion of the President, he appeared at his p46 worst and was a most difficult man with whom to work. Lee, however, understood from old acquaintance that Johnston usually cooled as quickly as he boiled. Knowing and admiring the man, Lee had no intention of permitting Johnston's testiness to ruin a friendship of thirty-five years' standing or to endanger a cause to which he knew Johnston was sincerely devoted. With patient tact, therefore, in a long letter, he smoothed down Johnston's ruffled sensibilities, explained all the matters of which Johnston complained, and ignored his request to be relieved of responsibility for the troops on the south side of the James.29 The incident, however, was a new warning of what might be expected in dealing with Johnston, and this, in turn, added to the difficulty of a situation that now seemed to be hurrying to a tragic climax.

For Johnston's army had continued its retreat and now was less than thirty miles from Richmond and only fifteen from the Chickahominy, the last natural barrier in McClellan's way.30 Stragglers were streaming into Richmond, some of them men who had thrown away their arms on the field of Williamsburg;31 on May 10 the Federals entered Norfolk — an irreparable loss;32 the valiant Virginia was blown up on the 11th, being unable to pass up James River and having no harbor;33 Huger was in retreat up the south side of the James toward Petersburg, destroying the railroad as he went;34 Federal gunboats were in the river,35 the defenses below the capital were still so weak that field artillery had to be hurried down to support the guns in fixed positions;36 panic had again seized Richmond and was driving hundreds southward;37 the archives were packed for removal and a conference was held on the disposition of reserve rations;38 committees waited on the President to know if he intended to hold the city, and went away scarcely reassured by his calm announcement that he would.39 News reached Richmond that Jackson had p47 won a victory over Milroy at the village of McDowell on May 8, and had driven the Federals westward from in front of Staunton, but this did not ease the mind of a public which did not understand that the battle was the auspicious preliminary to the fulfillment of larger plans. Jackson was declared "too rash" and a whisper that he was crazy when under excitement went the rounds.40 The President was bitterly assailed. Lee was criticised for what he had not directed on the Peninsula and for what he could not now prevent.41

Had Lee been of a nature to heed criticism of this sort, he would not have had time to trouble himself with it. Every energy was bent on the preparation of the defenses at Drewry's Bluff. That was now a more important position than even the line of the Chickahominy, toward which Johnston's columns were slowly marching. When Johnston finally made a stand and fortified himself, he could at least hold off McClellan for a time. But the Federal ironclads were coming up the James; the lower defenses of the river had all been abandoned; nothing stood between the Union fleet and Richmond except the incomplete batteries perched there on the cliff at Drewry's. A brief bombardment might decide the fate of that fortification and of Richmond any day the Federals saw fit to attack.

All the resources of the breathless capital were requisitioned to finish the obstructions and batteries, if possible, before the enemy's ships hove in sight. The seasoned, confident gunners of the abandoned Virginia were sent to Drewry's to reinforce the garrison.42 The crude machines that had been used to drive piles across the James were worked furiously. Ships that had been brought up from Norfolk were sunk below the bluff. A brigade from Huger's division was sent there by forced marches. Troops were posted on both sides the river to punish the incautious when the ships hove in sight. General William Mahone, as the most experienced construction engineer, was placed in charge of the defensive preparations.43

Twice the President and General Lee went down the river to examine in person the condition of the defenses.44 To them, to p48 anxious Richmond, and to the panting engineers who battled with mud and high water, the work at Drewry's seemed to progress with torturing slowness. The chances of success or disaster appeared to be about even. While Lee was struggling to better the odds, the President had to consider what should be done if the enemy passed the batteries on the bluff. His courage was as staunch as Lee's own, but after what had happened on the York, he could not decline to ask himself how the army could escape from the front of Richmond in case of disaster, and where it would make its next stand.

The counsel of Lee was sought on this dark question. He was summoned to a cabinet meeting and was asked what line south of Richmond the army of Johnston could best take up if forced to evacuate the city. The answer was not difficult from a military point of view: The next good line was that of the Staunton River, nearly one hundred miles to the southwest rather than to the south. Usually, Lee would have answered the President's question and would have said no more, but now his fighting-blood was up. The army could occupy a good position on the Staunton if Richmond fell, "but," he said — and tears rose in his eyes — "Richmond must not be given up; it shall not be given up!" His words were an amazement to men who had come to look on his self-control as invulnerable. "I have seen him on many occasions," Postmaster-General Reagan subsequently wrote, "when the very fate of the Confederacy hung in the balance; but I never saw him show equally deep emotion."45

Early on the morning of May 15, Lee rode down the valley of the James for a further examination of the river defenses. He had not gone far when across the flats there came the roar of the heaviest guns that had ever echoed over that quiet country. The Federals were attacking Drewry's Bluff! A few hours would tell which flag would float at nightfall over the capitol. Quickly the ordnance on the cliff took up the challenge. Farther down the river, on either bank, there was the bark of small arms as the Southern sharpshooters sought to hold the Federal sailors below p49 decks. For three hours and twenty minutes thunder followed thunder. Then the fire died away and the calm of the countryside settled once again.

It was not long before Lee and the anxious city behind him heard what had happened. The redoubtable Monitor, the ironclad Galena, and three other ships had steamed up the river almost to the obstructions and had engaged the garrison of the unfinished fortification. The Southern gunners had met this attack with a deliberate, accurate fire. The Confederate ship Patrick Henry, above the obstructions, had added the weight of its metal. Galena, badly mauled, her thick iron plates rent and buckled, had finally quit the fight, and, with the other vessels, had dropped down the stream, out of sight. The repulse was as decisive as it was surprising.46

Would the enemy renew the battle on the river, would he attempt to take Drewry's from the land side, or would the next thrust be across the marshes of the sluggish Chickahominy? Lee was not certain,47 but, so far as his limited authority went, he prepared to make the best resistance he could with the water-batteries and on either side of the James. Tactfully he urged Johnston to challenge McClellan's advance before the Federal army established contact with the fleet on James River.48 Vigorously he pushed the construction of works on the north bank, in the expectation that, if Johnston were forced to withdraw closer to Richmond, he would rest his right flank on that stream, opposite Drewry's Bluff.49 And all the while he kept looking to Jackson for the move by which, and perhaps by which alone, he believed that Richmond could be saved.


The Author's Notes:

1 De Leon, 191.

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2 O. R., 9, 458.

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3 O. R., 11, part 3, pp461, 464, 469, 470. Cf. ibid., 455‑56, for Johnston's view of the situation on April 22: "Nobody but McClellan would have hesitated to attack."

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4 E.g., O. R., 11, part 3, p464.

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5 Johnston's Narrative, 118‑19, 127.

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6 O. R., 11, part 3, p469.

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7 O. R., 11, part 3, p473.

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8 O. R., 11, part 3, pp484‑85.

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9 O. R., 11, part 3, pp474‑75.

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10Davis, 92‑93.

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11 To Charlotte Lee, Jones, 390.

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12 J. S. Mosby, Memoirs, 375; J. S. Mosby's conversation with Walter Watson, Watson's Notes on Southside Virginia, 245.

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13 O. R., 11, part 3, pp477, 485.

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14 O. R., 11, part 3, p488.

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15 O. R., 11, part 3, p488; there are many references to the difficulties of running the Virginia past Fort Monroe and taking her into the York, as Lee had several times proposed. Cf. O. R., 51, part 2, pp440‑41, 539.

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16 For the order of evacuation, see O. R., 11, part 3, p489. The evacuation, set for the night of May 2‑3, was delayed until the night of May 3‑4.

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17 O. R., 11, part 3, 493. This same dispatch, wrongly dated March 5, also appears in O. R., 5, 1090.

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18 De Leon, 193‑94.

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19 Fifty-four were lost; O. R., 11, part 3, 134.

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20 Federal casualties were 2239; Confederate, not accurately reported, were put at 1560.

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21 O. R., 11, part 3, pp476, 485‑86, 493; O. R., 51, part 2, pp338‑39, 507, 548‑49.

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22 O. R., 11, part 3, p497.

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23 O. R., 11, part 3, p499. The Raleigh and Jamestown had already been sent up the river for this purpose, ibid., 450.

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24 Cf. infra, p51.

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25 O. R., 51, part 2, pp552‑53. On the day that Johnston wrote, May 7, General G. W. Smith repulsed an enemy force at Eltham Landing (Johnston's Narrative, 126; G. W. Smith, 47). General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood, op. cit., 153, said that Johnston told a volunteer aide, during the retreat up the Peninsula, that he expected to be compelled to evacuate Richmond. The evidence as to this assertion is second-hand, though it probably is a fact that Johnston did not believe he would be able to hold the city.

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26 O. R., 11, part 3, pp499‑500.

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27 D. H. Maury, 144.

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28 See supra. Johnston's formal statement of his case appears in IV O. R., 1, 605 ff. Davis's contention was that Johnston's commission as a brigadier general, U. S. A., had been as quartermaster general, a staff appointment, with specific prohibition on the command of troops, and that Johnston's rank as a line officer was below that of those to whom he claimed to be senior.

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29 O. R., 11, part 3, pp502‑3.

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30 Johnston's headquarters on May 9 were at New Kent Courthouse; O. R., 11, part 3, p502.

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31 O. R., 11, part 3, 505, 506, 514.

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32 O. R., 11, part 3, p162.

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33 O. R., 11, part 3, 163‑64.

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34 O. R., 11, part 3, p507.

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35 O. R., 51, part 2, pp553‑54. O. R., 11, part 3, p505.

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36 O. R., 11, part 3, p516; O. R., 51, part 2, pp555‑56.

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37 Miss Brock, 129; T. R. R. Cobb, in 28 S. H. S. P., 292.

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38 O. R., 11, part 3, 504, 512‑13. McCabe stated, op. cit., 94‑96, that Congress adjourned precipitately about this time, but actually it had adjourned on April 21.

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39 De Leon, 197; Mrs. McGuire, 113.

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40 Mrs. McGuire, 112.

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41 Mrs. McGuire, 113.

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42 N. O. R., 7, 799.

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43 O. R., 11, part 3, pp515, 516, 518.

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44 Mrs. McGuire, 113‑14.

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45 J. H. Reagan: Memoirs (cited hereafter as Reagan), 139. The date of this meeting, as of many incidents during the exciting days of May, 1862, cannot be fixed with certainty. Although there is no date into which all the related facts fit so well as approximately May 14, it is possible that the incident came later.

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46 N. O. R., 7, 356 ff.; 2 B. and L., 270. McCabe, op. cit., 95, said that Lee and Davis witnessed the fight, and Taylor, O. R., 11, part 3, 518, stated that Lee went down to the river, but Lee's reference to the affair in his letter of May 16 to Jackson, O. R., 12, part 3, p893, does not read like the account of an eye-witness. It is probable that Lee was on the north side of the James, above Drewry's Bluff, and did not reach Chaffin's Bluff, if he went there at all, until the action was over. In 29 S. H. S. P., 284, Major A. H. Drewry denied the published report that the crew of the Virginia beat off the attack.

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47 Cf. his letter of May 16 to General Huger, O. R., 11, part 3, pp519‑20.

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48 O. R., 11, part 3, p523.

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49 O. R., 11, part 3, p521.


Thayer's Note:

a For a detailed account of the passage of the forts by the Federal fleet, see Chapter 15 of Kendall's History of New Orleans; and for the occupation of the city, written by a native thirty-some years later, Chapter 13 of Grace King's New Orleans: The Place and the People.


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