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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. II
p50
Chapter VI

"Drive Him Back Toward the Potomac"

From the time Drewry's Bluff was first threatened, about May 12, until the end of that month, Lee's position was increasingly difficult. Two games of chess, so to speak, were in progress under his eyes. Johnston was playing one, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson the other. Over Johnston's game Lee had no control. Jackson's moves he had been directed to supervise, under Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis's verbal orders. Yet Johnston, also, could direct Jackson. Lee had to advise the commander in the valley without knowing when Johnston would look up from his own board and tell Jackson what to do. The closer Jackson came to Richmond, the more certain it was that he would resume his command of Jackson's operations. So far as Lee's own sensibilities were concerned, it made no difference when Johnston again took charge of affairs in the valley. Lee would have been glad at any time to be relieved of responsibility where he lacked commensurate authority. But the strategy of Jackson was complicated and might easily be upset by conflicting orders, whereas, if the most were made of his opportunities, the rapid execution of his plans might change the whole dark situation in Virginia.

When Jackson had marched off into the mountains, by roundabout roads, to move against Milroy, west of Staunton, he had left Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell at Swift Run Gap, in the Blue Ridge. From that point Ewell could watch Banks or move eastward to support Anderson at Fredericksburg in case that officer was assailed. The inactivity of the Federals in the valley and at Fredericksburg puzzled Lee. He could not understand why so large a column as was reported to be just north of Fredericksburg remained quiet for so long a time. He began to doubt if this army of McDowell's was so large as it was supposed to be,1 and he suspected that McDowell p51 might really be waiting for reinforcements from Banks in the valley. In that case, it was very desirable to keep Banks from sending troops to McDowell, for if McDowell were strengthened, he would certainly march on Richmond. Accordingly, Lee ordered Branch's brigade from North Carolina, where he saw no further evidence of any intention on Burnside's part to move inland toward the railroad that connected Richmond with the South.2 Branch was dispatched to Gordonsville on May 5 to support Ewell, in the hope that this enlarged force would be strong enough to make a raid on Banks's communications and tie him down in the Shenandoah Valley.3 Twice after Branch's arrival Lee urged Ewell to undertake this raid if he were not needed to support Jackson, or if it should develop that Banks was leaving the valley.4 Ewell, however, had received a very important piece of news: Banks had ordered three days' rations cooked. Evidently he was preparing to move. Would it be on Staunton, or down the valley to Winchester, or across the mountains to Fredericksburg or Alexandria? Ewell did not know and, until he could be sure, he decided not to start the raid Lee had authorized. He notified Jackson of Banks's signs of activity, and received orders to remain in the valley as long as Banks did or at least until Jackson could return from his expedition against Frémont's army.5

Jackson, meantime, had been in something of a quandary. Having reached Staunton by a little-used route, he had joined Edward Johnson and, on May 8, had struck Milroy at the village of McDowell and had forced him back with losses. This was the battle the news of which had failed to lift the pervading gloom in Richmond, because Jackson had been accounted "too rash." The victory, in fact, had been by no means decisive but it had discouraged further Federal advances along the Parkersburg road and it probably had created in the minds of the Federals an exaggerated idea of the Confederate strength in the valley. Jackson's efforts to follow up the enemy had yielded no results and he had been debating a northward movement, along a road west p52 of the Shenandoah Mountains, in an attempt to get in Banks's rear. On receipt of the news that Banks was cooking three days' rations he resolved his quandary by deciding to return to Ewell via the shortest route.

As far as Lee knew of the development of these plans, he approved them step by step, leaving all details to Jackson's discretion, but when his adjutant general wrote Jackson to congratulate that officer on the victory at McDowell, he once more reverted to the plan that Lee had put first. General Lee, wrote Taylor, "thinks that if you can form a junction with General Ewell with your combined forces you would be able to drive Banks from the valley."6

This letter was dated May 14 and it ended the brief period of unhampered direction of Jackson's movements that Lee had enjoyed since Johnston had gone to the Peninsula. In two somewhat sharp letters to Lee, Johnston reasserted his right to the direction of operations in northern Virginia and he now proceeded to exercise it.7

Johnston's military method was quite different from that of Lee. A general design Johnston could fashion very soundly, but he was careless of details, and, if his larger strategic plans did not work out, he was disposed to extemporize from day to day, retreating if necessary and waiting for some good opportunity to attack. Lee's impulse, one might almost say his military instinct, was to devise a broad general plan, or to develop one from circumstance, and to watch the details so closely that he did not have to change his basic strategy so often as Johnston did. Lee disliked to direct remote operations, because he insisted that he could understand a situation only when he examined the ground, but his method was better suited to such work than Johnston's was. Now that Johnston again assumed control, there was danger that his natural desire to reinforce his own army would lead him to minimize the value of Lee's simple plan to drive Banks from the Valley.

Johnston's first orders to Ewell and to Jackson were issued on May 13. They provided that if Jackson and Ewell were strong p53 enough, they should attack Banks. "Should the latter cross the Blue Ridge," Johnston wrote Ewell, "to join General McDowell at Fredericksburg, General Jackson and yourself should move eastward rapidly to join either the army near Fredericksburg, commanded by Brig. Gen. J. R. Anderson, or this one. I must be kept informed of your movements and progress, that your instructions may be modified as circumstances change." Branch was to remain with Jackson and Ewell.8 Lee could have known nothing of these orders, else he would not have urged Jackson, the following day, to fall on Banks with Ewell's support.

Two plans of action were thus presented Jackson, both of them contingent. Johnston regarded a joint attack on Banks by Ewell and Jackson as desirable; Lee saw in it the supreme opportunity of the campaign. If Jackson and Ewell could not attack Banks in the valley, Johnston was quite content to have them join Anderson at Fredericksburg or come to Richmond. Lee felt that if the offensive could not be taken in the valley, Jackson and Ewell should strike at Banks as he moved eastward or else assail his line of communication. Only in case of inability to do this was he inclined to send Jackson and Ewell to Fredericksburg. Fundamentally, Lee was determined to keep McDowell from joining McClellan.9 Johnston had less faith than Lee in the success of any attempt to stop McDowell's march to McClellan. He had previously cherished the hope that this might be done,10 but he had virtually abandoned it.11 The whole tone of his correspondence again indicated a belief, never fully expressed, that he must effect a general concentration around Richmond, because he could not prevent the junction of McDowell and McClellan.

Before either Johnston's conditional orders or Lee's reiterated suggestion of an attack on Banks reached him, Ewell got word that two of his brigades were at Front Royal. This might mean either that Banks was withdrawing for fear he would be outflanked by Jackson, or that he was preparing to leave the valley and join McDowell or McClellan. Under orders from Jackson, p54 Ewell on May 14 put his column in motion after Banks,12 while Jackson hurried on to overtake Ewell.

Advised of these movements by Ewell, Lee did not feel that he should issue orders supplementing those that Johnston had given, but he could not altogether forgo advocacy of a plan of which he expected so much. On May 15 he informed Ewell of Jackson's approach and once again reminded him that "if upon the junction of yours and General Jackson's forces a blow could be struck at Banks, it would make a happy diversion in our favor in other directions."13 Writing to Jackson the next day, May 16, he informed him of the general situation and tactfully sought to reconcile Johnston's orders of May 13 with his own suggestion of operations against Banks. He explained that Banks might be planning to join McDowell or to take shipping at Alexandria and reinforce McClellan. "Whatever may be Banks's intention," he said, "it is very desirable to prevent him from going either to Fredericksburg or the Peninsula, and also to destroy the Manassas Gap road. A successful blow struck at him would delay, if it does not prevent, his moving to either place, and might also lead him to recall the re-enforcements sent to Fremont from Winchester. . . ." He went on: "But you will not, in any demonstration you may make in that direction, lose sight of the fact that it may become necessary for you to come to the support of General Johnston, and hold yourself in readiness to do so if required."14

On the 17th, the day after Lee sent this letter, Jackson was at Mount Solon, Augusta County, twelve miles southwest of Harrisonburg, and was headed for the valley turnpike. Ewell was marching after Banks. That same day fresh reports reached Jackson: Banks had halted his northward movement and was fortifying at Strasburg, eighteen miles south of Winchester. Simultaneously, Ewell heard that Shields's command, which had been with Banks, had crossed the Blue Ridge bound for Warrenton.15 p55 This meant, of course, that Banks's strength was reduced. The opportunity of attacking him, as Lee had proposed, seemed to have come. But there was one very serious obstacle. It threatened to upset the whole strategic plan at the very moment when its execution was possible: Johnston's orders to Ewell were that if Banks crossed the Blue Ridge, Ewell must follow him. Ewell was always strict in his construction of orders and he felt that Shields's departure was such a move as Johnston had contemplated. He accordingly considered that he should halt his march down the valley and turn eastward, paralleling Shields. He so advised Jackson, who, in turn, communicated with Johnston telling him what Banks was supposed to be doing at Strasburg. "I have been moving down the valley for the purpose of attacking Banks," Jackson wrote, "but the withdrawal of General Ewell's command will prevent my purpose from being executed. I will move on toward Harrisonburg, and if you desire me to cross the Blue Ridge please let me know by telegraph."16

The decision Johnston was called upon to make on receipt of this telegram was of the sort that brings out a commander's natural caution or daring, a quality of mind that usually tips the beam one way or the other when arguments seem to be balanced. Lee's whole inclination would have been to take the lesser risks for the sake of the great gain that would follow a defeat of Banks. Johnston's conservatism and his concern for his own army in front of Richmond led him to give contrary orders. "If Banks is fortifying near Strasburg," he told Ewell, "the attack would be too hazardous. In such an event we must leave him in his works. General Jackson can observe him and you can come eastward. If, however, Shields is on the Orange and Alexandria railroad near the Rapidan, it might be worthwhile for your joint forces to attack him, then for you to move on, while Jackson should keep Banks away from McDowell. We want troops here; none, therefore, must keep away unless employing a greatly superior force of the enemy. In your march communicate with Brigadier-General Anderson, near Fredericksburg; he may require your assistance. My general idea is to gather here all the troops who do not keep away from McClellan's greatly superior p56 forces."17 Branch's brigade, Ewell's support in the vicinity of Gordonsville, was directed to move to Johnston's left flank.18

These orders brought the valley campaign to its first crisis. The opportunity of destroying Banks was to be forgone. Jackson was to be left to face Banks in his front and Frémont on his flank or in his rear, as soon as Frémont's army recovered from the minor defeat of Milroy at McDowell. The best that could possibly be gained would be to put Shields hors de combat. Then Ewell and Anderson probably would be called to Johnston, the line of communications between Richmond and Jackson's army might be cut, and Johnston, plus Ewell and Anderson, might have to face McClellan and McDowell's combined forces. If, on the other hand, Banks were defeated, McDowell's communications might be so threatened that he would not dare advance, and Anderson could join Johnston for an attack on McClellan alone. Johnston could hardly have given more dangerous orders.

Lee probably did not know that his cherished plan of an early attack on Banks was threatened with immediate wreck. There is no evidence that the answer of General Johnston to Jackson's telegram was communicated to him. Probably the first he heard of the crisis came in this telegram:

Camp near New Market, Va.,    
May 20, 1862.                   

General R. E. Lee:

I am of opinion that an attempt should be made to defeat Banks, but under instructions just received from General Johnston I do not feel at liberty to make an attack. Please answer by telegraph at once.

T. J. JACKSON,             
Major-General.19

Jackson, in other words, had courageously met the crisis. He saw his opportunity lost if Johnston's orders were obeyed. Every impulse, every report of his scouts, every reflection upon the situation, convinced him that Lee's strategy was preferable. The p57 execution of orders was a part of Jackson's religion not less than of his military code, but in this instance, knowing the greatness of the stakes and the weight of the loss if he failed to attack Banks, he had countermanded the movement of Ewell to the east of the mountains and had appealed to headquarters. It was one of the most important acts of his career and it made possible the movements that were soon to win him a place among the great captains of war.

The copious records of the campaign curiously enough do not show precisely what Lee did when he received Jackson's appeal for a revocation of the orders of Johnston. Whether he spurred to Johnston's quarters and prevailed upon that officer to countermand his instructions, or whether he took the question directly to the President, it is impossible to say. The probabilities are that he did not lose the time that a reference of the subject to Johnston inevitably would have involved. The answer, which could only be of one sort, went forward quickly, and at dawn on May 21 Jackson set his column in motion down the valley to join Ewell in an attack on Banks, fortifications or no fortifications.20 Then, for the second time within a month, the curtain of Jackson's military caution was dropped between Richmond and the valley, and days passed before Lee knew what was happening.


The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 12, part 3, p887.

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2 O. R., 9, 467‑68.

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3 O. R., 12, part 3, pp887, 890‑91.º The editors of the Official Records enter Lee's letter of May 5 under that date but suggest in a foot-note that the proper date may have been May 15. Subsequent correspondence shows May 5 to have been correct.

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4 O. R., 12, part 3, pp883, 885, 887.

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5 O. R., 12, part 3, pp887‑88.

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6 O. R., 12, part 3, p889.

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7 O. R., 11, part 3, pp503, 505, 506, 510‑11.

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8 O. R., 12, part 3, 888.

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9 Cf. Lee to Johnston, April 23, 1862, O. R., 11, part 3, p459.

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10 O. R., 11, part 3, pp455‑56.

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11 O. R., 11, part 3, p506.

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12 O. R., 12, part 3, pp889, 890.

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13 O. R., 12, part 3, p891.

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14 O. R., 12, part 3, pp892‑93. The last-quoted sentence has often been cited as marking the genesis of the plan that Lee later developed to bring Jackson from the valley in order that he might participate in the campaign of the Seven Days. The fact is, as early as April 23, this particular movement had been accepted as part of a general concentration around Richmond in case of necessity (O. R., 11, part 3, pp456, 459). Lee's reference to the matter on May 16, in the writer's opinion, was simply, as set forth in the text, to reconcile his own suggestions with Johnston's orders.

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15 O. R., 12, part 3, pp894, 895.

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16 O. R., 12, part 3, pp894‑95.

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17 O. R., 12, part 3, pp896‑97. The text reads "who do not keep away from McClellan's greatly superior forces." The context makes McClellan, rather than McClellan's, the correct word.

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18 O. R., 12, part 3, p897.

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19 O. R., 12, part 3, p989.

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20 G. F. R. Henderson: Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (cited hereafter as Henderson), 1, 313.


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