A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
IN FRONT OF RICHMOND.
I. Plan of the Federal Campaign
The pathetic interview which we have just described took place in the month of March, 1862.
By the latter part of that month, General McClellan, in command of an army of more than one hundred thousand men, landed on the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers, and after stubbornly-contested engagements with the forces of General Johnston, advanced up the Peninsula--the Confederates slowly retiring. In the latter part of May, a portion of the Federal forces had crossed the Chickahominy, and confronted General Johnston defending Richmond.
Such was the serious condition of affairs in the spring of 1862. The Federal sword had nearly pierced the heart of Virginia, and, as the course of events was about to place Lee in charge of her destinies, a brief notice is indispensable of the designs of the adversaries against whom he was to contend on the great arena of the State.
While the South had been lulled to sleep, as it were, by the battle of Manassas, the North, greatly enraged at the disaster, had prepared to prosecute the war still more vigorously. The military resources of the South had been plainly underestimated. It was now obvious that the North had to fight with a dangerous adversary, and that the people of the South were entirely in earnest. Many journals of the North had ridiculed the idea of war; and one of them had spoken of the great uprising of the
Southern States from the Potomac to the Gulf of
Mexico as a mere "local commotion" which a force of fifty thousand men would be able to put down without difficulty. A column of twenty-five thousand men, it was said, would be sufficient to carry all before it in Virginia, and capture Richmond, and the comment on this statement had been the battle of Manassas, where a force of more than fifty thousand had been defeated and driven back to Washington.
It was thus apparent that the war was to be a serious struggle, in which the North would be compelled to exert all her energies. The people responded to the call upon them with enthusiasm. All the roving and adventurous elements of Northern society flocked to the Federal standard, and in a short time a large force had once more assembled at Washington. The work now was to drill, equip, and put it in efficient condition for taking the field. This was undertaken with great energy, the Congress cooeperating with the Executive in every manner. The city of Washington resounded with the wheels of artillery and the tramp of cavalry; the workshops were busy night and day to supply arms and ammunition; and the best officers devoted themselves, without rest, to the work of drilling and disciplining the mass.
By the spring of 1862 a force of about two hundred thousand men was ready to take the field in Virginia.
General Scott was not to command in the coming campaigns. He had retired in the latter part of the year
1861, and his place had been filled by a young officer of rising reputation--General George B. McClellan, who had achieved the successes of
Rich Mountain and Carrick's Ford in Western Virginia. General McClellan was not yet forty, but had impressed the authorities with a high opinion of his abilities. A soldier by profession, and enjoying the distinction of having served with great credit in the
Mexican War, he had been sent as United States military commissioner to the Crimea, and on his return had written a book of marked ability on the military organizations of the powers of Europe. When the struggle between the North and South approached, he was said--with what truth we know not--to have hesitated, before determining upon his course; but it is probable that the only question with him was whether he should fight for the North or remain neutral. In his politics he was a Democrat, and the war on the South is said to have shocked his State-rights view. But, whatever his sentiments had been, he accepted command, and fought a successful campaign in Western Virginia. From that moment his name became famous; he was said to have achieved "two victories in one day," and he received from the newspapers the flattering name of "the Young Napoleon."
The result of this successful campaign, slight in importance as it was, procured for General McClellan the high post of commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States. Operations in every portion of the South were to be directed by him; and he was especially intrusted with the important work of organizing the new levies at Washington. This he performed with very great ability. Under his vigorous hand, the raw material soon took shape. He gave his personal attention to every department; and the result, as we have said, in the early spring of 1862, was an army of more than two hundred thousand men, for operations in Virginia alone.
The great point now to be determined was the best line of operations against Richmond.
President Lincoln was strongly in favor of an advance by way of Manassas and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, which he thought would insure the safety of the Federal capital. This was always, throughout the whole war, a controlling consideration with him; and, regarded in the light of subsequent events, this solicitude seems to have been well founded. More than once afterward, General Lee--to use his own expression--thought of "swapping queens," that is to say, advancing upon Washington, without regard to the capture of Richmond; and
President Lincoln, with that excellent good sense which he generally exhibited, felt that the loss of Washington would prove almost fatal to the Federal cause.--Such was the origin of the President's preference for the Manassas line. General McClellan did not share it. He assented it seems at first, but soon resolved to adopt another plan--an advance either from Urbanna on the Rappahannock, or from West Point on the York. Against his views and determination, the President and authorities struggled in vain. McClellan treated their arguments and appeals with a want of ceremony amounting at times nearly to contempt; he adhered to his own plan resolutely, and in the end the President gave way. In rueful protest against the continued inactivity of General McClellan, President Lincoln had exclaimed, "If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it;" and "if something is not soon done, the bottom will be out of the whole affair."
At last General McClellan carried his point, and an advance against Richmond from the Peninsula was decided upon. In order to assist this movement,
General Fremont was to march through Northwestern Virginia, and
General Banks up the Valley; and, having thus arranged their programme, the Federal authorities began to move forward to the great work. To transport an army of more than one hundred thousand men by water to the Peninsula was a heavy undertaking; but the ample resources of the Government enabled them to do so without difficulty. General McClellan, who had now been removed from his post of commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States, and assigned to the command only of the army to operate against Richmond, landed his forces on the Peninsula, and, after several actions of an obstinate description, advanced toward the Chickahominy, General Johnston, the Confederate commander, deliberately retiring. Johnston took up a position behind this stream, and, toward the end of May, McClellan crossed a portion of his forces and confronted him.