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Bill Thayer

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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 X

Dusty Horseman Reaches Headquarters

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart's information about McClellan's position resolved the ground-factor in Lee's equation of an offensive. While Stuart was on the raid, the time-factor was brought closer to an answer. Colonel A. R. Boteler, the unofficial envoy of the Army of the Valley, arrived again at Lee's headquarters on the evening of June 14 with a confidential message and a formal dispatch from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson. The message was a renewal of the suggestion that Lee bring up Jackson's strength to 40,000 men so that he could invade the North. This, of course, was now out of the question; but Lee discussed it with Boteler.

"Colonel," he said, "don't you think General Jackson had better come down here first and help me to drive these troublesome people away from before Richmond?"

"I think," Boteler answered, "that it would be very presumptuous in me, General, to answer that question, as it would be hazarding an opinion upon an important military movement which I don't feel competent to give."

"Nevertheless," Lee replied, "I'd like to know your opinion."

"Well, if I answer your question at all," said Boteler, "it must be in the negative."

"Why so?" inquired Lee.

"Because," Boteler explained, "if you bring our valley boys down here at this season among the pestilential swamps of the Chickahominy the change from their pure mountain air to the miasmatic atmosphere will kill them off faster than the Federals had been doing."

"That," said Lee, "will depend upon the time they'd have to stay here. Have you any other reason to offer?"

"Yes," Boteler rejoined stoutly, "and it's that Jackson has been  p103  doing so well with an independent command that it seems a pity not to let him have his own way; and then, too, bringing him here, General, will be — to use a homely phrase — putting all your eggs in one basket."

"I see," Lee said with a kindly laugh, "that you appreciate General Jackson as highly as I myself do, and it is because of my appreciation of him that I wish to have him here."

Lee then made some inquiries as to conditions in the valley​1 and examined the dispatch Boteler delivered. Unfortunately, it was a confusing document. Jackson acknowledged Lee's letter of June 8, in which Lee had hinted that he might call him to Richmond, but he said nothing about the letter of the 11th, wherein Lee had told him he was sending him reinforcements so that he could crush the enemy in his front before joining the Army of Northern Virginia.​2 Yet Jackson said, "You can halt the reinforcements coming here if you so desire, without interfering with my plans provided the movement to Richmond takes place." Lee could not tell from this whether Jackson was referring to reinforcements previously mentioned in a general way or to those specifically named in his letter of June 11. Boteler did not know what letters Jackson had received; so, telling the colonel that he would have an answer for him, Lee bade him good-night and began to study anew the condition that "Stonewall" faced.3

It was clear from Jackson's dispatch that when he wrote on the 13th, he was at Mount Meridian, close to Port Republic, where he had fought his most recent battle. If Jackson had not moved from there, he certainly could not hope to reach the Federals, to attack them, and to return to the railroad in time to reach Richmond before McClellan was ready to open with his heavy guns. Besides, Jackson said in his letter, "So far as I am concerned my opinion is that we should not attempt another march down the Valley to Winchester, until we are in a condition under the blessing of Providence to hold the country."​4 Obviously Lee could not spare troops to hold the lower valley. If, then, a long offensive was dangerous with the forces Jackson had, and if a short offensive  p104  could not be completed within the time allowed, the course to follow was to bring Jackson to Richmond at once.

Lee accordingly wrote Jackson on the 16th: "From your account of the position of the enemy I think it would be difficult for you to engage him in time to unite with this army in the battle for Richmond. . . .​5 If you agree with me, the sooner you can make arrangements [to move on Richmond] the better. In moving your troops you could let it be understood that it was to pursue the enemy in your front. Dispose those to hold the Valley so as to deceive the enemy, keeping your cavalry well in your front, and at the proper time suddenly descending upon the Pamunkey. To be efficacious, the movement must be secret. Let me know the force you can bring, and be careful to guard from friends and foes your purpose and your intention of personally leaving the valley. . . . Unless McClellan can be driven out of his intrenchments he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond. I know of no surer way of thwarting him than that proposed. I should like to have the advantage of your views and be able to confer with you. Will meet you at some point on your approach to the Chickahominy."6

This was the climax approaching. The army was not wholly unprepared for it. Organization had been improved; officers and men were gaining confidence in their new commander, though he used no magic with them beyond that of energy and manifest ability;​7 the Federal communications were known; the weakest point on McClellan's line had been discovered; such reinforcements as could be had from the valley would soon be on the way.

The next step was to work out the precise details of the offensive. Lee lost no time in doing this. A few hours after he had written Jackson, he left his headquarters with Colonel Long and rode out to the north of the Chickahominy. As far as the outposts  p105  of the enemy, he made a careful examination of the countryside that swept in a plateau eastward along the northern bank of the protecting stream. "Now, Colonel Long," he said, "how are we to get at those people?"​8 Long was discreet enough to know that Lee was speaking more to himself than to him, and he had no suggestions to make. There was, of course, no question as to the general wisdom of attacking McClellan's exposed right flank. It seemed providentially extended for a turning-movement. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis and Lee had agreed, soon after Johnston had been about to commence such an advance when he had deferred his offensive on receipt of the news that McDowell had started back to Fredericksburg.​9 Johnston, however, had intended to attack south of the Chickahominy at the same time that he assaulted north of the river. The question now to be decided was whether Lee should launch his drive on both sides of the stream or should maintain a strict defensive on the south side of the Chickahominy and transfer the greater part of the Confederate army north of the river to co-operate with Jackson.

Lee said nothing of this to Long, but when he returned to headquarters, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet called and, by odd coincidence, proposed that Jackson be brought down from the valley and be hurled against the Federal right. Lee had no hesitation in confiding to Longstreet that this had already been ordered and he sketched a plan for an attack north and south of the river. From his own painful experience at Seven Pines, Longstreet knew something of the difficulties of bringing the whole Army of Northern Virginia simultaneously into action, and he raised the practical question of what would happen if, for any reason, the frontal attack south of the Chickahominy were delayed when Jackson advanced. Might not the enemy concentrate overwhelmingly against Jackson and drive him back against the Pamunkey, the fords and bridges of which it was reasonable to assume a vigilant enemy had destroyed? Lee weighed this objection and, on the strength of it, at length decided to move the greater part of his troops north of  p106  the river while a small force defended the works on the south side against a possible Federal attack.10

When Lee next met Davis, he laid this plan before him. The President was quick to ask if Lee thought McClellan would quietly permit him to take the initiative north of the Chickahominy and not deliver a counter-attack south of the river against Lee's weakened centre and left? The line south of the river, he said, was much too weak to sustain long assaults. If McClellan was the man he had taken him to be when he had been Secretary of War and had appointed him a member of the military commission to observe the war in the Crimea, McClellan would march into Richmond. If, on the other hand, said Davis, the Federal commander acted like an engineer officer and considered it his first duty to protect his line of communication, then he would not attack, and Lee's plan would work out successfully. Lee fired a bit at the suggestion that engineer officers were likely to make such mistakes and for the moment was in the humorous position of defending his opponent, a fellow-engineer of the old army, but he had a better answer: "If," said he, "you will hold as long as you can at the intrenchment, and then fall back on the detached works around the city, I will be on the enemy's heels before he gets there."​11 This was not bravado, but a well-reasoned conclusion. It was based in part on Lee's knowledge of McClellan. In larger degree, it was founded on the belief that if he could once drive McClellan eastward on the north side of the Chickahominy, till he passed New Bridge, he had nothing to fear on the south side. For New Bridge, which was about three and  p107  a half miles below the crossing of the Mechanicsville Turnpike, was not far from the Confederate lines on the south side of the river. Once in control of that bridge, Lee felt that he could easily reinforce that part of his command south of the river or get in the rear of McClellan's forces there if they attempted an advance on Richmond. The outcome fully justified Lee in this.

By this time, the atmosphere of camp and of city was one of expectancy. Every one in authority had the air of knowing a secret. Hints of an early offensive kept men from being wholly cast down by the news that Fort Pillow on the Mississippi had been abandoned on June 4 and that Memphis had been occupied by the enemy on the 6th.​12 In the lull of waiting for his plan to be executed, Lee found time to write a few domestic letters in his usual playful spirit. In one of them he answered the inquiries of his daughter-in‑law about his personal appearance in uniform and beard, assuring her that "an uglier person you have never seen, and so unattractive is it to our enemies that they shoot at it whenever visible to them." He concluded calmly: "Our enemy is quietly working within his lines, and collecting additional forces to drive us from our capital. I hope we shall be able yet to disappoint him, and drive him back to his own country."13

This was on June 22. A great part of the next day Lee spent at the Dabbs house.​14 During the forenoon, he sent off couriers with sealed dispatches to three division commanders, Longstreet, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.D. H. Hill, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.A. P. Hill.​a Then he transacted army business. About 3 P.M., two dusty horsemen rode up the lane on weary, panting horses, and halted at the fence. One of them stiffly dismounted, gave his steed to the other and walked to the house with long strides. It was Jackson.

The Author's Notes:

1 40 S. H. S. P., 173‑74.

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2 O. R., 12, part 3, p913.

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3 40 S. H. S. P., 174.

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4 Jackson to Lee MS., June 13, 1862. This dispatch, which was long supposed by historians to have been lost, is among some Lee papers acquired by the library of Duke University.

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5 This is the language which proves conclusively that when Lee detached Whiting and sent Lawton on to Jackson, he contemplated an offensive and was not merely employing a ruse. See supra, p96.

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6 O. R., 12, part 3, p913.

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7 Some interesting but unimportant anecdotes of Lee's dealings with his men at this time will be found in B. Napier: A Soldier's Story of the War (cited hereafter as Napier), 98; The Land We Love, 3, 253; Battlefields of the South . . . by an English Combatant (cited hereafter as English Combatant), 2, 15‑16.

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8 Long, 168.

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9 See supra, p66.

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10 Longstreet, 120. On the basis of his conversation with Lee, Longstreet after the war claimed credit for originating the plan of campaign employed in the Seven Days's Fight. There was a lively exchange of letters among General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early, General D. H. Hill, and Colonels W. H. Taylor and Charles Marshall in 1876 concerning this claim. Unfortunately, the correspondents were not of one mind regarding what Longstreet took to himself, nor did all of them describe the same incidents in discussing it. Taylor mentioned the matter in his General Lee, 59, and some of the correspondence is preserved in the Taylor MSS. There probably is no mystery about the affair: Longstreet on June 3 had proposed an attack north of the Chickahominy (Longstreet, 114‑15), but he was certainly not the first to do so. He may have been author of the suggestion to concentrate heavily there and to maintain a strict defensive south of the river.

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11Davis, 132. It is worth noting that when the writer was once discussing this campaign, on the grounds, with Marshal Foch, that distinguished soldier raised the same objection as Mr. Davis. His idea was that McClellan should of course have attacked south of the river and that Lee could only have held the centre and right by concentrating his artillery there. He was very particular to know how many heavy guns Lee had between the Chickahominy and White Oak Swamp.

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12 1 R. W. C. D., 134‑35; Mrs. McGuire, 121.

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13 Lee to Charlotte Lee, June 22, 1862; Jones, 391.

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14 Long, 166.

Thayer's Note:

a For whom — since this is the first time he is mentioned by Freeman — see this excellent, detailed multi-page site entirely devoted to him: A. P. Hill, Confederate General.

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Page updated: 1 Jun 17