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.
IX. Lee concentrates at Fredericksburg
In returning from the Valley, General Lee had exhibited that combination of boldness and caution which indicates in a commander the possession of excellent generalship.
One of two courses was necessary: either to make a rapid march with his entire army, in order to interpose himself between General McClellan and what seemed to be his objective point, Gordonsville; or, to so manoeuvre his forces as to retard and embarrass his adversary. Of these, Lee chose the latter course, exposing himself to what seemed very great danger. Jackson was left in the Valley, and Longstreet sent to Culpepper; under these circumstances, General McClellan might have cut off one of the two detached bodies; but Lee seems to have read the character of his adversary accurately, and to have felt that a movement of such boldness would not probably be undertaken by him. Provision had nevertheless been made for this possible contingency. Jackson was directed by Lee, in case of an attack by General McClellan, to retire, by way of Strasburg, up the Valley, and so rejoin the main body. That this movement would become necessary, however, was not, as we have said, contemplated. It was not supposed by Lee that his adversary would adopt the bold plan of crossing the Blue Ridge to assail Jackson; thus, to leave that commander in the Valley, instead of being a military blunder, was a stroke of generalship, a source of embarrassment to General McClellan, and a standing threat against the Federal communications, calculated to clog the movements of their army. That Lee aimed at this is obvious from his order to Jackson to cross a division to the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, in General McClellan's rear. When this was done, the Federal commander abandoned, if he had ever resolved upon, the design of striking in between the Confederate detachments, as is claimed by his admirers to have been his determination; gave up all idea of "moving into the Valley and endeavoring to gain their rear;" and from that moment directed his whole attention to the concentration of his army near Warrenton, with the obvious view of establishing a new base, and operating southward on the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
Lee's object in these manoeuvres, besides the general one of embarrassing his adversary, seems to have been to gain time, and thus to render impossible, from the lateness of the season, a Federal advance upon Richmond. Had General McClellan remained in command, it is probable that this object would have been attained, and the battle of Fredericksburg would not have taken place. The two armies would have lain opposite each other in Culpepper and Fauquier respectively, with the Upper Rappahannock between them throughout the winter; and the Confederate forces, weary and worn by the long marches and hard combats of 1862, would have had the opportunity to rest and recover their energies for the coming spring.
The change of commanders defeated these views, if they were entertained by General Lee. On assuming command,
General Burnside conceived the project, in spite of the near approach of winter, of crossing the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and marching on Richmond. This he now proceeded to attempt, by steadily moving from Warrenton toward the Lower Rappahannock, and the result, as will be seen, was a Federal disaster to wind up this "year of battles."
We have spoken with some particularity of the character and military abilities of General McClellan, the first able commander of the Federal forces in Virginia. Of
General Burnside, who appears but once, and for a brief space only, on that great theatre, it will be necessary to say only a few words. A modest and honorable soldier, cherishing for General McClellan a cordial friendship, he was unwilling to supersede that commander, both from personal regard and distrust of his own abilities. He had not sought the position, which had rather been thrust upon him. He was "surprised" and "shocked," he said, at his assignment to the command; he "did not want it, it had been offered to him twice before, and he did not feel that he could take it; he had told them that he was not competent to command such an army as this; he had said the same over and over again to the President and the Secretary of War." He was, however, directed to assume command, accepted the responsibility, and proceeded to carry out the unexpected plan of advancing upon Richmond by way of Fredericksburg.
To cover this movement, General Burnside made a heavy feint as though designing to cross into Culpepper. This does not seem to have deceived Lee, who, on the 17th of November, knew that his adversary was moving. No sooner had the fact been discovered that General Burnside was making for Fredericksburg, than the Confederate commander, by a corresponding movement, passed the Rapidan and hastened in the same direction. As early as the 17th, two divisions of infantry, with cavalry and artillery, were in motion. On the morning of the 19th, Longstreet's corps was sent in the same direction; and when, on November 20th, General Burnside arrived with his army, the Federal forces drawn up on the hills north of Fredericksburg saw, on the highlands south of the city, the red flags and gray lines of their old adversaries.
As General Jackson had been promptly directed to join the main body, and was already moving to do so, Lee would soon be able to oppose General Burnside with his whole force.
Such were the movements of the opposing armies which brought them face to face at Fredericksburg. Lee had acted promptly, and, it would seem, with good judgment; but the question has been asked, why he did not repeat against General Burnside the strategic movement which had embarrassed General McClellan, and arrest the march upon Fredericksburg by threatening, with the detachment under Jackson, the Federal rear. The reasons for not adopting this course will be perceived by a glance at the map. General Burnside was taking up a new base--Aquia Creek on the Potomac--and, from the character of the country, it was wholly impossible for Lee to prevent him from doing so. He had only to fall back before Jackson, or any force moving against his flank or rear; the Potomac was at hand, and it was not in the power of Lee to further annoy him. The latter accordingly abandoned all thought of repeating his old manoeuvre, moved Longstreet and the other troops in Culpepper toward Fredericksburg, and, directing Jackson to join him there, thus concentrated his forces directly in the Federal front with the view of fighting a pitched battle, army against army.
This detailed account of Lee's movements may appear tedious to some readers, but it was rather in grand tactics than in fighting battles that he displayed his highest abilities as a soldier. He uniformly adopted the broadest and most judicious plan to bring on battle, and personally directed, as far as was possible, every detail of his movements. When the hour came, it may be said of him that he felt he had done his best--the actual fighting was left largely in the hands of his corps commanders.
The feints and slight encounters preceding the battle of Fredericksburg are not of much interest or importance. General Burnside sent a force to
Port Royal, about twenty-five miles below the city, but Lee promptly detached a portion of his army to meet it, if it attempted to cross, and that project was abandoned. No attempt was made by General Burnside to cross above, and it became obvious that he must pass the river in face of Lee or not at all.
Such was the condition of affairs at Fredericksburg in the first days of December.