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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 XXIII

Great News Comes on a Hard March

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet's van relieved A. P. Hill after nightfall on the 24th, and the rest of his gray regiments came over the green hills opposite Warrenton Springs Ford while the last of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's "foot-cavalry" filed off about daybreak on August 25. The Federals were still in position on the other side of the Rappahannock and were known to have extended their right flank far upstream, because Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart's sharpshooters had been forced road to ram and fire fast the previous day to keep the enemy from crossing at Waterloo Bridge.

All the morning and most of the afternoon of the 25th the artillery exchanged its challenge across the river, but the demonstrations ended in smoke and sound. The infantry were not engaged. Lee had time for study of his situation and for his correspondence. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope's defiant strength led him to suspect that part of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan's army had come up, so he hurried off a courier to Rapidan Station with a telegram for the President. This set forth his views and urged speed in the dispatch of the reinforcements of whose advance he had heard little.​1 General Gilmer was directed by letter to hasten the completion of the Richmond defenses, so that still more troops could be withdrawn from them,​2 and the Secretary of War was asked to locate and to send forward a regiment of cavalry reported idle in North Carolina. "Cavalry is very much needed in this region," Lee told General Randolph; "the service is hard and the enemy strong in that arm."3

In the evening General Stuart rode over to headquarters at Jeffersonton to report and to get his orders. Lee gave him detailed  p305  instructions for his march in support of Jackson, and in the knowledge that Jackson's operation required an abundance of cavalry, Lee authorized Stuart to take all his troopers with him, an overgenerous act for which he was soon to pay.​4 The day ended with a visit from Rooney. Lee had not seen him for some time and had heard little from his family since he had left Richmond. Rooney told his father of his adventures with Stuart, a tale that stirred the heart of the whilom colonel of the 2d United States Cavalry. At first opportunity, he wrote Charlotte about the pleasant moments with his son, and could not forbear expressing a measure of pride over Rooney's part in the raid on Catlett's Station. "He is very well," he told her, "and the picture of health. . . . In the recent expedition . . . he led his regiment,  p306  during a terrible storm at night, right through the camp of the enemy, capturing several hundred prisoners and some valuable papers of General Pope. I am so grateful to Almighty God for preserving, guiding, and directing him in this war: Help me pray to Him for the continuance of his signal favor."5

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Situation on the evening of August 25, 1862.

There was something suspicious about the movements of the enemy the next morning, August 26. The bridgehead was still occupied and the fire was strong, but the bustle was not that of a foe expecting to receive or intending to deliver an attack. Soon Lee interpreted what was happening across the river as an indication that the enemy was beginning to move away. Did this mean that Pope had discovered that Jackson had left, and was he hurrying to protect his rear and to crush the "foot-cavalry" while Lee's forces were divided?​6 Lee could not answer the question, but he did not hesitate over his dispositions. If Pope was moving away from the Rappahannock, he would soon be within striking distance of Jackson, even if he had not already had wind of the march of "Stonewall." The Army of Northern Virginia must, therefore, be reunited. Calling to him the stocky, hard-headed Longstreet, who was already known to his men as "Old Pete," Lee told him he intended to join Jackson as soon as possible. Would Longstreet prefer to force the crossings of the Rappahannock and take the shorter route, or did he think it better to follow the longer but safer road that Jackson had chosen? Longstreet deliberated and then announced that as there were several strong positions where Pope could oppose him between the Rappahannock and Warrenton, he would rather advance as Jackson had done, via Orleans and Salem.

Orders were issued accordingly. R. H. Anderson was told to cover Warrenton Springs Ford, and the "right wing," that was soon to be the famous "First Corps," stole quietly away during the afternoon under cover of the hills and headed north.​7 Passing over a branch of the Rappahannock at Henson's Mill,​8 it covered eleven honest miles before it bivouacked for the night. Everywhere, as it marched on, the country people doubtless told  p307  how Jackson's column had passed the day before, swinging fast in the cool of the morning, while Jackson grimly urged them on with the oft-repeated words, "Close up, men, close up."

As Lee and his mess were preparing to eat their meagre evening meal by the roadside near Orleans, an invitation, as pressing as gracious, came for the General and his staff and Longstreet and his military household to have supper at nearby home of the Marshalls. Lee was careful never to stay at private homes in a country where the subsequent appearance of the enemy might bring embarrassment to his hosts or provoke reprisals on them; but in this instance, as it seemed unlikely that the Federals would soon return, he accepted. A glorious meal in the lavish Virginia style was followed by a pleasant evening of social conversation, during which even Longstreet unbent. Before retiring, Lee told Mrs. Marshall that his party would have to start so early the next morning that he could not possibly accept her invitation to breakfast. The hostess, however, was not to be outdone in courtesy, and at dawn a bounti­ful breakfast was announced. Not knowing when or where they again would taste such cookery, the staff  p308  ate heartily, and with many thanks rode off, blessing the honored name of Marshall.9

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Situation about midnight, August 26‑27, 1862.

At the head of the long, long, column, which was marching doggedly on at the route step, Lee and his officers on the morning of August 27 covered the ten miles to the vicinity of the little village of Salem, now known as Marshall. There a halt was made for a short rest. Hungry and thirsty soldiers in the leading regiments walked ahead to see if the stores and wells offered refreshment. Soon a quartermaster came dashing back down the road, crying loudly, "The Federal cavalry are upon us!" And on his heels galloped a bluecoated squadron. Only his staff and a few couriers were with Lee, who was directly in the line of the advancing troops. Holsters were unstrapped with nervous fingers, swords were bared; the little cavalcade spread itself across the road, determined at any price to delay the enemy until the General could make off. An anxious half-minute passed; then the Federals halted, looked for an instant, mistook the mounted men for a strong cavalry column, and retired as they had come. It was the first close escape Lee had experienced since that day in western Virginia when a detachment of Union cavalry had swept past without seeing him in the woods.10

Who were the Federals, and what did their presence signify? Lee had no cavalry to whom he could look for an answer. The whole column had to wait until the neighbors could be questioned as to the direction from which the bluecoats had come and the numbers they had displayed. The conclusion was that they had moved from the vicinity of Warrenton and that they were not strong enough to threaten the column; but time was lost, valuable time, in trying to ascertain what a regiment of cavalry could have established in half an hour. So much for the mistake in detaching the whole of the cavalry to help Jackson.11

Even when the army at length moved forward again, the men on the lookout for the Federals unconsciously slowed their pace. The only tangible evidence of enemy depredation found by the advanced  p309  files was of a singular sort. Directly in the middle of the road on which Longstreet was moving, stood a deserted family carriage, its horses gone and its occupants fled. When Lee rode up and inquired about this odd spectacle, he was told that the owner, a lady of the neighborhood, had taken refuge in a nearby house with her daughters. Characteristically, he cantered over to ascertain what had happened. He learned from the matron's regret­ful lips that she had heard of his approach and had ridden out with her daughters to see him. On the way the Federals had overtaken them, and, deaf to the ladies' remonstrances, had unceremoniously taken her span of bay horses and had gone off with them. Lee administered such comfort of words as he could and expressed his regret that he could not replace the lost team. The lady was pleased at his civilities and felt that she had at least accomplished the object of her errand, but she was compelled to admit thereafter that two matched carriage horses were a rather heavy price to pay, even for a chat with General Lee.12

The march continued in sickening heat and stifling dust. The road was so narrow that the column was strung out for miles, and water was so scarce that the thirst men drank dry the stagnant mud holes. It was in vain that Lee, to save them from exhaustion, asked if there were no other, shorter roads his men might follow.13

Two and a half miles from Salem the weariness of the march was broken by the arrival of a courier. He had come over the Bull Run Mountains, and he brought from Jackson a dispatch that made every heart beat faster.​14 By an astounding two days' march Jackson had covered fifty-four miles, and the previous evening had reached Bristoe Station. There he had captured two trains, though two had escaped. Then, while some of their men had been tearing up the track, Trimble with two regiments and Stuart with part of the cavalry had gone seven miles farther up the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to Manassas Junction, where Jackson had heard that the Federals had accumulated vast stores. The junction had been taken with slight opposition, and all its treasures were the Confederates'. The dispatch modestly announced the occupation of Bristoe and Manassas, but the army instantly  p310  acclaimed the operation one of the greatest feats of the war. Jackson was precisely where Lee wanted him to be — in rear of the Federal army and between it and Washington.​15 Not only so, but at the time Jackson had written, there had been little evidence that the Federals were massing to meet him. With good fortune, the two wings of the army could unite again before Pope's retreat, which was now inevitable, brought him in superior force to Manassas.

Lee saw possibilities of high manoeuvres from Jackson's position, if more men were forthcoming, and in customary manner he wrote of the next move as he read of the last. In a dispatch to the President, conveying the good news, he urged once again that reinforcements, particularly Hampton's cavalry brigade, be sent forward with all speed.​16 Somewhere on the way, the messenger that carried his dispatch to the telegraph station at Rapidan probably passed a courier bound from that place with a message from Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis. In this, the President told Lee of the advance of the troops already sent to his assistance. With a mind to the criticism that would certainly overwhelm him if Richmond were taken because it was stripped of its defenders, the President concluded: "Confidence in you overcomes the view which would otherwise be taken of the exposed condition of Richmond, and the troops retained for the defense of the capital are surrendered to you on a new request."17

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Situation on the evening of August 27, 1862.

Reinforcements coming, Jackson between Pope and Washington, the railroad cut, the enemy's advanced base destroyed — it was enough to strengthen men to endure even the torture of that endless day's groping through dust that burned eyes and parched throats. Yet, though the troops marched cheerfully, there was a definite lessening of tension, and the pace was slower. Lee did not have the heart to push the men when there was nothing in Jackson's dispatch to indicate that his situation demanded a forced march. Headquarters were established late in the evening at the home of James W. Foster, near White Plains.​18 Some of  p312  the rear units kept the road until 2 A.M. and then lay down where they halted.​19 Even then the stinted rest of exhausted bodies was broken when "an old gray mare" belonging to one of the Texas regiments dashed frantically through the sleeping ranks. "Some one gave the alarm," General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood subsequently wrote, "crying with a loud voice, 'Look out!' and the brave men who had fought so nobly at Cold Harbor sprang to their feet, deserted their colors and guns, and ran down the slope over a well-constructed fence, which was soon levelled to the ground, and had continued their flight several hundred yards before they awoke sufficiently to recover their wits, and boldly marched back, convulsed with laughter."20

Lee was now on the watershed of the Potomac, the dividing line between the Union and the Confederacy. If Jackson was still at Manassas, the remainder of the Army of Northern Virginia, on the morning of August 28, was just twenty-two miles from him, a long but not an impossible day's march. There was only one natural obstacle in the way — Thoroughfare Gap. The road from the plains led up Bull Run Mountains to this pass, paralleling the Manassas Gap Railroad and a little stream that flows finally into Occoquan Creek. The gap itself was not so formidable as its name implied — nor so much of a cañon as some writers have represented it to be.​21 With good tactics it could be wrested from a small opposing force; but if the enemy by any evil chance of war held the gap in strength, there would be trouble! At the moment there seemed little prospect of this. All the news was reassuring. Couriers arrived at intervals during the morning from Jackson, passing unhindered through the gap. They brought the cheering and important tidings that Jackson had left the exposed position at Manassas, and was resting his men, undisturbed and apparently unobserved, at a place called Groveton, seven miles northwest of Manassas. This move put him nineteen miles from Lee and not twenty-two, as had been supposed.22

Confidently, then, the tired soldiers rose on the morning of August 28 from their short night's broken slumber and moved  p313  through a beauti­ful country toward Thoroughfare Gap. The highest ground was reached before the gap was visible, and the down grade began; but the progress of the wagon train was slow and the day was hot, despite the elevation. The morning had dragged to noon, and the noon to 3 P.M. before the head of the column approached the gap. Lee was disposed to call a halt and give the men twelve hours' sleep, so that they would be fresh the next morning to descend the Bull Run Mountains and to join with Jackson in a new manoeuvre that would throw Pope back on Washington. As a precaution, however, Lee determined to send forward Longstreet's leading division, that of D. R. Jones, to occupy the pass against possible seizure by the Federals, who by this time might be close at hand.23

Jones went briskly forward, with G. T. Anderson's brigade of Georgians in the field. Soon from the echoing sides of the defile​24 there rolled the sound of an angry fire. Presently the message of all messages that Lee least wished to hear was glumly brought back: The enemy in undetermined strength held the pass and commanded it from a ridge at the opposite side. Jackson had been interposed between the Federals and Washington; now the Federals stood squarely between the two wings of the Army of Northern Virginia. Bad news, indeed! For if the Union force in the mountains was large enough and stubborn enough, Longstreet could be held off while the rest of Pope's army demolished Jackson. Then the united force of Pope and McClellan could fall upon Longstreet.

So reasoned the strategists in the ranks and some of those in command, as the report swept swiftly rearward. But if Lee shared these fears, he gave no outward sign. Quietly he rode forward to the summit of the hill west of the pass and there he dismounted. Slowly and without a tremor he put his glasses to his eyes and studied the gap closely. Then he calmly put his binocular back into the case, returned to his mount and went back down the hill.​25 Perhaps he knew enough of Jackson's position to realize that if "Stonewall" learned that Longstreet was in difficulties, he could skirt the northern end of the Bull Run Mountains and join him. Perhaps, again, Lee's quick eye for  p314  topography and his experience in Mexico and western Virginia convinced him that Thoroughfare Gap was not so formidable as it was reputed to be — that there must be trails or minor passes by which resolute men could turn the position of the enemy. He gave his orders briskly:​26 D. R. Jones was to press the enemy on either side of the gap. Hood's division was to search for a nearby route over the mountain, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilcox, temporarily commanding three brigades, was to move them quickly to the northward and to try Hopewell Gap, three miles to the left. While these dispositions were being made, Lee went to dine at the nearby Robinson home, the hospitable owner of which pressed an invitation on him and his staff; and "this meal," wrote an officer who had a good memory for gustatory delights, "was partaken of with as good an appetite and as much geniality of manner as if the occasion was an ordinary one, not a moment in which victory or ruin hung trembling in the balance."27

It must have been about the time Lee finished dinner, in the late afternoon, that the troops who were climbing and crawling over the barren rock and through the tangled mountain laurel heard in the intervals between the slow Federal artillery fire a low and ominous mutter far from the eastward — gunfire, artillery, a battle doubtless in progress in the distance. It must be Jackson, found and assailed by the enemy who might, ere this, have been joined by some of those hard-hitting volunteers from the Army of the Potomac! It seemed a critical hour. At the gap, the Federals now pushed forward their artillery and swept the defile. Jones put one brigade on the cliffs to the left, and another, with two regiments of a third, to the right. Two regiments were held in reserve. As Jones could not bring his batteries to bear, his unprotected men had to force their way from rock to rock, firing as they came closer to the Federals. Finally, one of Jones's regiments, the 1st Georgia regulars, got within effective range. It made its fire count. An attempt by the enemy to hurl back the Georgians was quickly repulsed.

Twilight began to fall in the pass, but the fire continued, as if the Federals, in confident possession of a dominating position, were determined to hold off the Confederates until Jackson was finished. The situation gave every promise of a long, ugly fight.  p316  Law's brigade, however, had been sent a little farther to the left by General Hood, under the guidance of a man who professed to know a trail. When the end of this was reached, Law found a cleft in the rock through which his men could go forward, one at a time. Ere long, his skirmish line was formed on the crest, and as it descended, Law breathed in immense relief; for, looking down, he could see that he was beyond the flank of the Federals facing the gap! Resolution, speed, and good tactics might drive the enemy, even if only that one brigade could be thrown against him. Quickly Law's line was formed to turn the enemy's batteries; anxiously the men started forward. Before they got in range, the Union batteries limbered up and dashed to the rear. Law was for pushing on, and he frothed with rage a few minutes later when peremptory orders came for him to retire. Most unwillingly his men returned as they had come, tramping in the half-darkness over the dangerous ground.

But the threat of the advancing Confederates had already had its effect, and there was no reason for exposing the brigade. The enemy was preparing to retreat. Jones waited a while and then boldly marched his division unopposed through the pass. Wilcox, hurrying to Hopewell Gap, found evidence that the Federals had been there during the day, but they had left at nightfall, and by 10 P.M. he started on his unmolested march to the eastern face of the mountains. When the anxious day ended, the danger was past, as if by some miracle. Lee sent a courier to Jackson, announcing the outcome of the fight at the gap,​28 and two stout divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia slept on their arms with their faces toward "Stonewall's" battleground. Since the forenoon they had heard nothing directly from him, except the growl of his guns, which had continued until 9 P.M. But there was hope in their hearts. Only the open road lay before them now, and they were determined that all the might that Pope could muster should not halt them on the morrow.29

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Situation about 10 P.M., August 28, 1862.

The Author's Notes:

1 Lee's Dispatches, 53.

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2 O. R., 12, part 3, pp944, 944‑45.

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3 O. R., 12, part 3, p944.

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4 O. R., 12, part 2, p733.

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5 Letter of Aug. 26, 1862; Jones, 392.

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6 Marshall, 134; B. and L., 517.

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7 O. R., 12, part 2, pp555, 564; B. and L., 517.

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8 On the maps as "Hinson's" and so spelled in most of the reports, probably because the dialect of that section of Virginia sometimes gives "e" the spoken value of "i."

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9 Long, 191‑92.

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10 Marshall, 134; Long, 192; W. M. Owen: In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans (cited hereafter as Owen), 111; Napier, 118; G. Wise, 94.

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11 Marshall, 135; Longstreet, 170.

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12 Long, 193.

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13 Napier, 126.

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14 Marshall, 134; Lee's Dispatches, 54.

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15 O. R., 12, part 2, pp643, 670 ff., 720‑21, 749; 13 S. H. S. P., 10; 2 Henderson, 125 ff.

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16 Lee's Dispatches, 54.

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17 O. R., 12, part 3, p945. This dispatch is dated Aug. 26 but it could not have reached Lee before the 27th.

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18 Later known simply as The Plains, G. Wise, 94.

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19 B. and L., 517; O. R., 12, part 2, pp555, 564.

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20 Hood, 32.

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21 It is curious to note that even Longstreet (op. cit., 174), writing many years after the war, exaggerated the strength of the gap.

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22 B. and L., 517; Longstreet, 173.

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23 Longstreet, 173.

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24 Sorrel, op. cit., 97, noted the singular resonance of the pass.

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25 Cooke, an eye-witness, op. cit., 119‑20.

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26 Long, 194.

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27 Long, 194.

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28 McCabe, 221.

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29 O. R., 12, part 2, pp555‑56, 579, 594, 598; Law in B. and L., 527‑28. The 1st New Jersey cavalry alone had defended the gap until 3 P.M., the approximate hour of the arrival of the head of Longstreet's column. At that hour, Ricketts's 2d Division of McDowell's III Corps had arrived. Ricketts had not had time to make his dispositions and had been satisfied that his flank was being turned from left and from right. He withdrew during the night in a state close to panic, satisfied, as he reported, that the position was "critical" (O. R., 12, part 2, p384).

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