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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
Chapter VIII


The battle probably would be renewed with the dawn. That meant infinitely more to Lee than personal advancement or opportunity. He could not attempt to direct the fighting immediately, for that would be as dangerous to the army as it would be unfair to Smith. What, then, could he do to help Smith?

Over that question Lee wrestled after he returned to Richmond. Before 5 o'clock on the morning of the 1st, a courier was knocking at his door with a dispatch from Smith, telling of his dispositions and asking for more troops and additional engineers. In his own hand Lee answered at once — answered with a consideration for Smith's feelings that reflected not a pose but an honest wish for the success of a comrade-in‑arms.

Richmond, 1st June, 1862


Your letter of this morning just arrived. Ripley will be ordered and such forces from General Holmes as can be got up will be sent. Your movements are judicious and determination to strike the enemy right. Try and ascertain his position and how he can best be hit. I will send such engineers as I can raise. But with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stevens, Whiting, Alexander, etc., what can I give you like them. You are right in calling upon me for what you want. I wish I could do more. It will be a glorious thing if you can gain a complete victory. Our success on the whole yesterday was good, but not complete.

R. E. Lee, General.

He addressed it to "Genl. G. W. Smith, Comdg. Army of N. Va." and sent it off.1 Then he set himself to redeeming the promise of his letter. At this he was laboring when he received  p76  a brief, formal communication from the President. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis explained that the wounding of Johnston "renders it necessary to interfere temporarily with the duties to which you were assigned in connection with the general service, but only so far as to make you available for command in the field of a particular army,"2 which was a diplomatic way of serving notice to all and sundry that there was no occasion to renew the agitation for the appointment of a commanding general. Other dispatches came; every hour brought new calls; time had to be found to draft an address for publication to the army when Lee took command; preparations had to be made to move the office. It was about 1 P.M., June 1, 1862, an historic hour in the military history of the United States, when Lee was able to start with his staff for the battlefield.

He was now aged fifty-five and had been in the service of the Confederacy more than thirteen months, without having participated in a single general engagement. Only once — and then but the day previously — had he been under close fire since, in September, 1847, the guns of Chapultepec had been silenced. He was as old as Haig was when he succeeded Sir John French, three years older than Ludendorff when that officer became quartermaster general, eight years younger than Joffre at the Marne, and thirteen years the junior of Hindenburg in 1914 and Foch in 1918. Wellington, at thirty-seven, had seven years in which to fix the fame he had won in Spain; to Marlborough, after he was fifty-two, a decade of campaigning as supreme commander remained; Napoleon, a general in Italy at twenty-seven, was destined to have nineteen years before Waterloo. For Lee, Appomattox was distant only thirty-four months.

In what spirit did Lee approach the sprawling, weary lines of the army he was henceforth to lead? He did not confide his thoughts to his staff officers as they trotted along, but his feelings probably were those he put on paper the next day in a letter to his daughter-in‑law. "I wish," said he, "that [Johnston's] mantle had fallen upon an abler man, or that I were able to drive our enemies back to their homes. I have no ambition and no desire  p77  but the attainment of this object, and therefore only wish for its accomplishment by him that can do it most speedily and thoroughly."3 It was the profession of a simple soul, and such a soul was Lee's.

Riding out the Nine Mile road, Lee found President Davis and General Smith at the Hughes house, about a mile closer to Richmond than the headquarters occupied the previous day. The battle around Seven Pines had been renewed during the morning, as Lee had expected, but Smith had not been successful in winning a victory. Instead, the action at that hour seemed to be dying indecisively away. Davis had already notified Smith that Lee was to supersede him, so explanations were unnecessary, and an immediate conference could be held to acquaint Lee with the exact dispositions.4 At its conclusion Lee and Smith went over to the headquarters of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet on the Williamsburg road. They found that Longstreet's troops had broken off the battle, but that their commander was anxious to renew it, confident of victory. The forces on the flanks, however, were not in hand for immediate co-operation, so Lee ordered the whole army back to the lines it had occupied before the battle of the previous day.

Thereupon Lee returned to the Nine Mile road, where he opened headquarters in a house belonging to Mrs. Mary C. Dabbs, widow of Josiah Dabbs, a property about a mile and a half from the outskirts of the city.5 One of his first acts was to issue as an order the address he had prepared before leaving Richmond. It is worth quoting in full, for two reasons. It was the first of a series that was to range every chord of resolution, triumph, and exhortation before the solemn finale was sounded at Appomattox. In the second place, this order gave the army the name it was to make famous. Lee, and Lee alone, had already styled it "The Army of Northern Virginia" in various references to it, but never before had it been so addressed in its own orders.6 It was by  p78  happy chance and not through deliberate design that Lee christened the army the very day he assumed command.

Special Orders,
       No. 22

Richmond, Va., June 1, 1862

I. In pursuance of the orders of the President, General R. E. Lee assumes command of the armies of Eastern Virginia and North Carolina.

The unfortunate casualty that has deprived the army in front of Richmond of the valuable services of its able general is not more deeply deplored by any member of his command than by its present commander. He hopes his absence will be but temporary, and while he will endeavor to the best of his ability to perform his duties, he feels he will be totally inadequate to the task unless he shall receive the cordial support of every officer and man.

The presence of the enemy in front of the capital, the great interests involved, and the existence of all that is dear to us appeal in terms too strong to be unheard, and he feels assured that every man has resolved to maintain the ancient fame of the Army of Northern Virginia and the reputation of its general and to conquer or die in the approaching contest.

II. Commanders of divisions and brigades will take every precaution and use every means in their power to have their commands in readiness at all times for immediate action. They will be careful to preserve their men as much as possible, that they  p79  may be fresh when called upon for active service. All surplus baggage, broken down wagons, horses, and mules, and everything that may embarrass the prompt and speedy movement of the army will be turned into depot. Only sufficient transportation will be retained for carrying the necessary cooking utensils and such tents or tent-flies as are indispensable to the comfort and protection of the troops.

By order of General Lee:

W. H. Taylor,                   
Assistant Adjutant-General.7

The troops politely cheered when this order was read to them,8 but no enthusiasm attended the announcement of the selection of Lee as commander of the army. The newspapers had been requested to omit all reference to the wounding of Johnston and consequently most of them had no comment on the choice of his successor. The single violation in Richmond of this voluntary censorship was a mild expression of hope by the hostile Richmond Examiner that Lee would "prove himself a competent successor to General Johnston and complete his great undertaking." This tepid commendation was coupled with an encomium on Johnston: "Time may yet produce another, but no living man in America is yet ascertained to possess a military character so profound, or a decision of character so remarkable."9 A few loyal admirers expressed the belief that the change of commanders would bring victory.10 Up in the valley, the inimitable Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's right-hand man, announced that he would not be "scared" to fight under Lee.11

Most of Johnston's lieutenants, taking their cue from him, had been very critical of the Richmond government, and they resented the selection of a "staff officer" to lead them. There were "misgivings" as to Lee's "power and skill for field service" and fears that he would not be aggressive.12 Smith felt that he should be left to direct operations; the best that Longstreet could say  p80  for the change was that it afforded a happy relief from the halting policy of the unhappy Smith.13 Aside from Davis, the only man of station who seemed to realize what Lee might accomplish in the field was Johnston himself. His petulance vanished with a few days' rest and ere long he saw clearly how the friction between him and the administration had endangered the defense of Richmond. When told by a friend that his wounding was a calamity to the South, Johnston manfully answered, "No, sir. The shot that struck me down is the very best that has been fired for the Southern cause yet. For I possess in no degree the confidence of our government, and now they have in my place one who does possess it, and who can accomplish what I never could have done — the concentration of our armies for the defensive of the capital of the Confederacy."14 Neither the army nor the swelling anti-Davis cabal in Richmond knew that this was the opinion of Johnston when his nerves were restored and his shoulders eased of responsibility. In some quarters, "disparagement, sarcasm and ridicule" were the lot of Lee.15

The new commander wasted no time in answering or in mollifying critics but bent himself to the task of saving Richmond. Circumstance gave him the necessary time. McClellan had been shaken by the impetuous attacks at Seven Pines, and though his casualties were less by 1103 than the Confederates had sustained, his cautious nature prompted him to delay further operations until reinforcements made good his casualties. Lee had no information of this, of course, nor was he aware that most of the eleven bridges that McClellan had been constructing across the Chickahominy had been washed away,16 but he could judge the effects of the weather on the roads McClellan would be compelled to use. And that weather was of the worst. The day Lee took command the battle-ground was so heavy that President Davis's mount had been mired knee-deep.17 There was rain on June 3, a heavy storm during the night of June 3‑4, a downfall on the 4th,  p81  no sunshine on the 5th, showers during the night of the 5th-6th, and a near-deluge on the morning of the 6th.18 The Chickahominy bottom was covered with three or four feet of water; the whole face of the country was a bog; General Burnside, visiting there, took four and one-half hours to go nine miles on horseback.19 "You have seen nothing like the roads on Chick[ahomin]y bottom, Lee told Davis on the 5th.20

Behind the temporary barrier of these mud-courses, Lee reasoned fast. His first concern, of course, was a position of immediate security for the army. Should it remain where it was, or should it fall back closer to Richmond? After a conference with Longstreet, Lee decided to hold the ground on which the troops then rested, as he believed this would keep McClellan's army astride the Chickahominy.21

This settled, Lee's next task, of course, was to prevent the capture of Richmond. On this he was determined. The sentiments he had expressed at the Cabinet meeting, about the time of the attack on Drewry's Bluff, were stronger now that he had the responsibility of command. He told one politician that if he had to evacuate Richmond, he would fall back to the mountains, "and," he added, "if my soldiers will stand by me I will fight those people for years to come."22 It was manifest, however, that Richmond could not be held indefinitely against McClellan's larger army, possessed as the Federals were of ample artillery of superior range. The way to save the capital was to drive McClellan off, before his army was overwhelming or his guns close enough to shell the city. To attack McClellan, Richmond must be so protected by earthworks that it could be defended by a small force while the rest of the army attacked. Preparation of works would take time, and the outcome of an offensive was of course doubtful. Consequently, it was necessary to keep reinforcements from McClellan and, at the same time, to make it difficult for him to bring up heavy ordnance with which to open parallels.

 p82  This was Lee's initial analysis of his military problem, an analysis quickly completed and immediately applied. His first move was to provide for the construction of the earthworks. "I desire you," he wrote his chief engineer, Major W. H. Stevens, on June 3, "to make an examination of the country in the vicinity of the line which our army now occupies, with a view of ascertaining the best position in which we may fight a battle or resist the advance of the enemy. The commanding points on the line I desire to be prepared for occupation by our field guns and the whole line strengthened by such artificial defences as time may permit. My object is to make use of every means in our power to strengthen ourselves and to enable us to fight the enemy to the best advantage. It is not intended to construct a continuous line of defence or to erect extensive works. Having selected the line and put the works in progress of construction, I desire you to resume the examination and see what other positions can be taken near Richmond in case of necessity. . . . I have to request that you will push forward the work with the utmost diligence."23 The next day he organized a pioneer corps of 300 men from each division and placed them under Stevens's command to work on the entrenchments.24 He had little faith in military labor by slaves, though later he had to employ it.

So much for the first steps. With good speed and good fortune, Richmond would be safe enough, in two or three weeks, for him to make a thrust at his adversary. But how was he to keep the industrious McClellan from pounding his way by regular approaches within striking distance of Richmond? "McClellan," he told Mr. Davis, "will make this a battle of posts. He will take position from position under cover of his heavy guns and we cannot get at him without storming his works, which with our new troops is extremely hazardous."25 The roads, Lee reasoned, were so heavy that McClellan could not haul siege guns over them. He must use the Richmond and York River Railway. If, therefore, some method could be devised to keep the Federals from employing the railroad for this purpose, a bombardment might be avoided until Lee was ready for an offensive. It was a new  p83  problem in war. Lee solved it by proposing to mount and armor a heavy gun upon a railroad truck, which could be run down the Richmond and York River line, outranging the Federal ordnance on the swampy ground.26 This was the birth of railway ordnance. Simultaneously, he directed an immediate reorganization of the Confederate artillery to render it more mobile and more efficient.27

Cover was being prepared for an offensive. An untried weapon for halting the movement of the Federal heavy artillery was to be fashioned. How, next, was he to guard against the possibility that McDowell would move southward again, reinforce McClellan, and envelop Richmond with a force against which an offensive would be merely a waste of life?

Jackson's victory at Winchester had been an immense relief — "of great advantage" as Lee conservatively put it,28 but the demonstration on the Potomac had been short-lived. Frémont from the west and Shields from the east had threatened the rear of the Army of the Valley and had forced Jackson to withdraw. Only his daring and his hard marching had enabled his 16,000 men to elude the Federals' 60,000 and more.29 Once out of the Federal pincers, Jackson had immediately projected a new thrust at the enemy. He had sent to Lee a Confederate congressman, A. R. Boteler, with a statement of his situation. Placed where he was, Jackson had bidden Boteler to tell Lee, he believed he could strike successfully at Shields, but, he went on, if Lee could send him enough reinforcements to raise his army to 40,000 men, he could invade the North. In talking with Boteler, about June 3 or 4, Lee did not see how he could do more than replace Jackson's losses, which he was already preparing to make good,30 and he perhaps told Boteler that before he could give Jackson 40,000 reinforcements, Jackson would have to unite with him and drive McClellan from in front of Richmond — a possibility which, on June 2, he had discussed with Davis.31 With this message,  p84  Boteler returned to the valley. Pondering the question, however, Lee saw the immense possibilities of an offensive in the North and he decided to make an effort to comply with Jackson's request. "After much reflection," he wrote the President on June 5, "I think if it was possible to reinforce Jackson strongly, it would change the character of the war. This can only be done by the troops in Georgia, S. C. and N. C. Jackson could in that event cross Maryland into Penn. It would call all the enemy from our Southern Coast and liberate those states. If these states will give up their troops I think it can be done."32 In other words, if the South Atlantic states would take the risks, Jackson could assume the offensive and undertake an invasion of the North. That would lead to the immediate evacuation of the Georgia and Carolina coast and, at the same time, would prevent the reinforcement of McClellan on any large scale. The danger that would result from stripping these states of their defenders was not excessive, for there was reason to believe the Union forces had been reduced along the coast. Besides, the heat and the mosquitoes had settled over the swamps and were as effective a barrier to a Federal advance as would have been a bristling, bayoneted line, crowded with troops. The situation had changed much, in this respect, since Lee had left Savannah — had changed for the better, indeed, since he had opposed the withdrawal of forces from that front at the time of the council of war preceding Johnston's move to the Peninsula in April. Heretofore, Lee had held strictly to the defensive, in order that the South might gather strength. Now, looking beyond the relief of Richmond, Lee for the first time could consider a new phase of the war, an offensive-defensive at a distance from Richmond. The immediate success of such a change of policy depended not merely on good strategy but also on the mental attitude of the Georgia and Carolina people. The President, of course, could order the brigades northward, and they would come; but could a new government, dependent on the support of sovereign states, afford to risk a panic  p85  or to create the impression that Virginia was being defended at the expense of her sisters? The influences that were to thwart the efforts of the administration in later attempts to effect large-scale concentration were already operative and had to be taken into account. The Southern states were allies, not a united nation, and the conduct of military operations was subject to nearly all the difficulties, save that of language, that weaken most alliances. Would they have the larger vision now? Were the much-cherished states' rights, which were so potent a factor in leading the South to declare its independence, to prove an obstacle to the attainment of that independence?

The Author's Notes:

1 G. W. Smith, 205‑6.

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2 O. R., 11, part 3, pp568‑69. Orders from the Adjutant-General, announcing that Lee would succeed Johnston, bear date of June 2 and appear in ibid., 571.

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3 Lee to Charlotte Lee, June 2, 1862; Jones, 390.

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4Davis, 129; G. W. Smith, 211‑13.

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5 The Dabbs farm, since renowned, was known as High Meadows. Its owner, Mrs. Dabbs, subsequently married Reverend J. B. Jeter, D.D. See W. E. Hatcher: Life of Jeremiah B. Jeter, 265, 271, 274. For the history of this property, the writer is indebted to his friend Thomas C. Fletcher.

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6 Johnston had continued to call it the "Army of the Potomac" long after Oct. 22, 1861, when the "Department of Northern Virginia" had been established (O. R., 5, 913; cf. ibid., 1061; O. R., 51, part 2, p553). As late as March 17, Lee had addressed Johnston (p78)as "commanding Army of the Potomac" (O. R., 5, 1105), but on March 25, he had written him as "commanding Army in Northern Virginia" (O. R., 11, part 3, p397) and on March 28, in a letter to Johnston, he had first styled his command the "Army of Northern Virginia." This represented nothing more than the application of the name of the department to the army, but perhaps it had other implications to the soldier whose home, now in the hands of the enemy, had been in northern Virginia. Prior to June 1, the only reference to the "Army of Northern Virginia" in an official order seems to have been made by Lee on April 12 when he announced in the President's name that the departments of Norfolk and of the Peninsula were to be embraced, for the time, within the line of operations of "The Army of Northern Virginia" (O. R., 11, part 3, p438). Neither Johnston nor Davis adopted the name. After the army moved to the Peninsula, "Army of the North" (O. R., 11, part 3, p485) and on June 2, the day after Lee had christened it in his orders, Davis addressed the men facing McClellan as the "Army of Richmond" (O. R., 51, part 2, p565). The more famous name that Lee bestowed upon the army rested thereafter on usage, not on formal, authorized adoption.

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7 O. R., 11, part 3, p569.

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8 Richmond Examiner, June 4, 1862, p1, col. 1.

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9 Richmond Examiner, June 4, 1862, p2, col. 2.

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10 E.g., 1 R. W. C. D., 133.

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11 F. M. Myers: The Comanches (cited hereafter as F. M. Myers), 61.

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12 Longstreet, 112; Alexander, 110; E. M. Law in Southern Bivouac, new series, 2, no. 11 (April, 1887), 652.

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13 Longstreet, 112.

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14 D. H. Maury, 161. After Johnston recovered and was about to take command in the West, he was toasted at a farewell breakfast as the "only man who can save the Confederacy." Johnston replied, "The man you describe is now in the field in the person of General Robert E. Lee. I will drink to his health" (De Leon, Belles and Beaux and Brains of the 'Sixties, etc., 400‑402).

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15 Richmond Whig, July 15, 1862, p1, col. 1.

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16 O. R., 11, part 1, pp30‑31, 44.

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17 Reagan, 143.

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18 Waldrop in Contributions to the History of the Richmond Howitzers Battalion (cited hereafter as Richmond Howitzers), part 3, pp39‑40; O. R., 11, part 1, p45; part 3, p217.

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19 O. R., 11, part 1, p46; ibid., part 3, p224.

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20 D. S. Freeman, editor: Lee's Dispatches (cited hereafter as Lee's Dispatches), 8.

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21 J. A. Early, to W. H. Taylor, MS., April 29, 1876, quoting Charles Marshall, Taylor MSS.

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22 To Lieutenant Governor R. L. Montague, Jones, 295.

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23 O. R., 11, part 3, pp571‑72. Cf. Richmond Dispatch, July 9, 1862, p2, col. 1.

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24 G. O. No. 62, A. N. Va., O. R., 11, part 3, p573.

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25 Lee to Davis, June 5, 1862; Lee's Dispatches, 8.

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26 Lee's Dispatches, 7‑8; O. R., 11, part 3, pp574, 575‑76, 610, 615.

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27 Susan P. Lee: Memoirs of William Nelson Pendleton (cited hereafter as Pendleton), 187, 198; J. C. Wise: Long Arm of Lee (cited hereafter as Wise), 1, 198 ff.

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28 O. R., 11, part 3, pp582‑83.

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29 1 Henderson, 346 ff.

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30 O. R., 12, part 3, p906.

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31 So Davis, op. cit., 2, 131, and R. L. Dabney: Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (cited hereafter as Dabney), 431. Colonel Boteler, in his account, 40 S. H. S. P., 161, did not state that Lee then insisted that Jackson join him in defeating (p84)McClellan before launching a large-scale offensive against the North. Boteler did, however, quote Lee to this effect in an interview on June 14 (ibid., 173). It is possible that Henderson and Dabney confused the two conversations, but as Lee on June 3‑4 had certainly considered bringing Jackson to Richmond, the conflict of testimony is not material.

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32 Lee's Dispatches, 5‑6.

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