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
LEE INVADES MARYLAND.
VIII. Lee passes the Blue Ridge
From the central frontier of his headquarters, near
Winchester, the key of the lower Valley, General Lee was able to watch at once the line of the Potomac in his front, beyond which lay General McClellan's army, and the gaps of the Blue Ridge on his right, through which it was possible for the enemy, by a rapid movement, to advance and attack his flank and rear.
If Lee had at any time the design of recrossing into Maryland, he abandoned it. General McClellan attributed that design to him. "I have since been confirmed in the belief," he wrote, "that if I had crossed the Potomac below
Harper's Ferry in the early part of October, General Lee would have recrossed into Maryland." Of Lee's ability to thus reenter Maryland there can be no doubt. His army was rested, provisioned, and in high spirits; the "stragglers" had rejoined their commands, and it is certain that the order for a new advance would have been hailed by the mercurial troops with enthusiasm. No such order was, however, issued, and soon the approach of winter rendered the movement impossible.
More than a month thus passed, the two armies remaining in face of each other. No engagement of any importance occurred during this period of inactivity, but once or twice the Federal commander sent heavy reconnoitring forces across the Potomac; and Stuart, now mounting to the zenith of his reputation as a cavalry-officer, repeated his famous "ride around McClellan," on the Chickahominy.
The object of General Lee in directing this movement of the cavalry was the ordinary one, on such occasions, of obtaining information and inflicting injury upon the enemy. Stuart responded with ardor to the order. He had conceived a warm affection for General Lee, mingled with a respect for his military genius nearly unbounded, and at this time, as always afterward, received the orders of his commander for active operations with enthusiasm. With about eighteen hundred troopers and four pieces of horse-artillery, Stuart crossed the Potomac above
Williamsport, marched rapidly to Chambersburg, in Pennsylvania, where he destroyed the machine-shops, and other buildings containing a large number of arms and military stores; and continued his way thence toward Frederick City, with the bold design of completely passing around the Federal army, and recrossing the river east of the Blue Ridge. In this he succeeded, thanks to his skill and audacity, in spite of every effort of the enemy to cut off and destroy him. Reaching White's Ford, on the Potomac, north of Leesburg, he disposed his horse-artillery so as to cover this movement, cut his way through the Federal cavalry disputing his passage, and recrossed into Virginia with a large number of captured horses, and without losing a man.
This expedition excited astonishment, and a prominent officer of the Federal army declared that he would not have believed that "horse-flesh could stand it," as the distance passed over in about forty-eight hours, during which considerable delay had occurred at Chambersburg, was nearly or quite one hundred miles. General McClellan complained that his orders had not been obeyed, and said that after these orders he "did not think it possible for Stuart to recross," and believed "the destruction or capture of his entire force perfectly certain."
Soon afterward the Federal commander attempted reconnoissances in his turn. A considerable force of infantry, supported by artillery, crossed the Potomac and advanced to the vicinity of the little village of Leetown, but on the same evening fell back rapidly, doubtless fearful that Lee would interpose a force between them and the river and cut off their retreat. This was followed by a movement of the Federal cavalry, which crossed at the same spot and advanced up the road leading toward
Martinsburg. These were met and subsequently driven back by Colonel W.H.F. Lee, son of the general. A third and more important attempt to reconnoitre took place toward the end of October. General McClellan then crossed a considerable body of troops both at Shepherdstown and Harper's Ferry; the columns advanced to Kearneysville and Charlestown respectively, and near the former village a brief engagement took place, without results. General McClellan, who had come in person as far as Charlestown, then returned with his troops across the Potomac, and further hostilities for the moment ceased.
These reconnoissances were the prelude, however, of an important movement which the Federal authorities had been long urging General McClellan to make. Although the
battle of Sharpsburg had been indecisive in one acceptation of the term, in another it had been entirely decisive. A drawn battle of the clearest sort, it yet decided the future movements of the opposing armies. General Lee had invaded Maryland with the design of advancing into Pennsylvania--the result of Sharpsburg was, that he fell back into Virginia. General McClellan had marched from Washington with no object but an offensive-defensive campaign to afford the capital protection; he was now enabled to undertake anew the invasion of Virginia.
To the success of such a movement the Federal commander seems rightly to have considered a full and complete equipment of his troops absolutely essential. He was directed at once, after Sharpsburg, to advance upon Lee. He replied that it was impossible, neither his men nor his horses had shoes or rations. New orders came--General Halleck appearing to regard the difficulties urged by General McClellan as imaginary. New protests followed, and then new protests and new orders again, until finally a peremptory dispatch came. This dispatch was, "Cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south," an order bearing the impress of the terse good sense and rough directness of the Federal President. This order it was necessary in the end to obey, and General McClellan, having decided in favor of a movement across the Potomac east instead of west of the mountain, proceeded, in the last days of October, to cross his army. His plan was excellent, and is here set forth in his own words:
"The plan of campaign I adopted during this advance," he says, "was to move the army well in hand, parallel to the Blue Ridge, taking Warrenton as the point of direction for the main army, seizing each pass on the Blue Ridge by detachments as we approached it, and guarding them after we had passed, as long as they would enable the enemy to trouble our communications with the Potomac.... We depended upon Harper's Ferry and Berlin for supplies until the Manassas Gap Railway was reached. When that occurred, the passes in our rear were to be abandoned, and the army massed ready for action or movement in any direction. It was my intention, if, upon reaching Ashby's or any other pass, the enemy were in force between it and the Potomac, in the Valley of the Shenandoah, to move into the Valley and endeavor to gain their rear."
From this statement of General McClellan it will be seen that his plan was judicious, and displayed a thorough knowledge of the country in which he was about to operate. The conformation of the region is peculiar. The Valley of the Shenandoah, in which Lee's army lay waiting, is separated from "Piedmont Virginia," through which General McClellan was about to advance, by the wooded ramparts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, passable only at certain points. These _gaps_, as they are called in Virginia, are the natural doorways to the Valley; and as long as General McClellan held them, as he proposed to do, by strong detachments, he would be able both to protect his own communications with the Potomac, and, if he thought fit to do so, enter the Valley and assail the Confederate rear. That he ever seriously contemplated the latter design is, however, extremely doubtful. It is not credible that he would have undertaken to "cut off" Lee's whole army; and, if he designed a movement of that description against any portion of the Southern army which might be detached, the opportunity was certainly presented to him by Lee, when Jackson was left, as will be seen, at Millwood.
No sooner had General McClellan commenced crossing the Potomac, east of the mountain, than General Lee broke up his camp along the Opequan, and moved to check this new and formidable advance into the heart of Virginia. It was not known, however, whether the whole of the Federal forces had crossed east of the Blue Ridge; and, to guard against a possible movement on his rear from the direction of Harper's Ferry, as well as on his flank through the gaps of the mountain, Lee sent Jackson's corps to take position on the road from Charlestown to Berryville, where he could oppose an advance of the enemy from either direction. The rest of the army then moved guardedly, but rapidly, across the mountain into Culpepper.
Under these circumstances, General McClellan had an excellent opportunity to strike a heavy blow at Jackson, who seemed to invite that movement by crossing soon afterward, in accordance with directions from Lee, one of his divisions to the east side of the mountain on the Federal rear. That General McClellan did not strike is not creditable to him as a commander. The Confederate army was certainly divided in a very tempting manner. Longstreet was in Culpepper on the 3d of November, the day after General McClellan's rear-guard had passed the Potomac, and nothing would seem to have been easier than to cut the Confederate forces by interposing between them. By seizing the Blue Ridge gaps, and thus shutting up all the avenues of exit from the Valley, General McClellan would have had it in his power, it would seem, to crush Jackson; or if that wily commander escaped, Longstreet in Culpepper was exposed to attack. General McClellan did not embrace this opportunity of a decisive blow, and Lee seems to have calculated upon the caution of his adversary. Jackson's presence in the Valley only embarrassed McClellan, as Lee no doubt intended it should. No attempt was made to strike at him. On the contrary, the Federal army continued steadily to concentrate upon Warrenton, where, on the 7th of November, General McClellan was abruptly relieved of the command.
He was in his tent, at Rectortown, at the moment when the dispatch was handed to him--brought by an officer from Washington through a heavy snow-storm then falling.
General Ambrose E. Burnside was in the tent. McClellan read the dispatch calmly, and, handing it indifferently to his visitor, said, "Well, Burnside, you are to command the army."
Such was the abrupt termination of the military career of a commander who fills a large space in the history of the war in Virginia. The design of this volume is not such as to justify an extended notice of him, or a detailed examination of his abilities as a soldier. That he possessed military endowments of a very high order is conceded by most persons, but his critics add that he was dangerously prone to caution and inactivity. Such was the criticism of his enemies at Washington and throughout the North, and his pronounced political opinions had gained him a large number. It may, however, be permitted one who can have no reason to unduly commend him, to say that the retreat to
James River, and the arrest of Lee in his march of invasion toward Pennsylvania, seem to indicate the possession of something more than "inactivity," and of that species of "caution" which achieves success. It will probably, however, be claimed by few, even among the personal friends of this general, that he was a soldier of the first ability--one competent to oppose Lee.
As to the personal qualities of General McClellan, there seems to be no difference of opinion. He was a gentleman of high breeding, and detested all oppression of the weak and non-combatants. Somewhat prone to _hauteur_, in presence of the importunities of the Executive and other civilians unskilled in military affairs, he was patient, mild, and cordial with his men. These qualities, with others which he possessed, seem to have rendered him peculiarly acceptable to the private soldier, and it is certain that he was, beyond comparison, the most popular of all the generals who, one after another, commanded the "Army of the Potomac."