Confederate Tide Rising, Part 5

Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862
by Joseph L. Harsh

“The enemy is congregating about us”: Lee in Strategic Stalemate, July 2 – August 9, 1862

Lee had succeeded in driving McClellan away from Richmond, but in doing so, he found himself in an unenviable strategic situation in early July 1862. It was true that McClellan was not directly in front of Richmond, but he was still a threat at Harrison’s Landing, only 25 miles to the southeast. To make matters worse, Lincoln had called John Pope, victor at Island No. 10, east to command a new army. Pope’s Army of Virginia was created from the various units that had unsuccessfully chased Jackson around the Shenandoah Valley in the spring. This army, although smaller than McClellan’s, threatened Richmond from the northwest. Lee was stuck where he was for the moment. If he headed north to deal with Pope, McClellan might renew his drive on Richmond. Lee was also aware of the presence of Ambrose Burnside’s Union IX Corps, fresh off its victories in North Carolina. Lee had reports that Burnside was in Fredericksburg, forming a sort of “center” to Pope’s and McClellan’s “wings”. Lee sent Jackson to deal with Pope while he watched McClellan, but Burnside’s troops could move on Lee’s unprotected “center” with impunity. In addition, Pope’s and Burnside’s presence meant less of Virginia lay in Confederate hands, a condition Lee could not accept. Pope had been treating the citizens of northern Virginia with very little respect. Lee started referring to the general as a “miscreant” and spoke in terms of “suppressing” Pope and his army. The situation did not look good for the South, but Lee continued looking for ways to regain the initiative.

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The massive success of the Confederates in the late summer of 1862 has covered up to some extent the serious situation the South found itself in through June and July, says Harsh. The western Confederates had seen the fall of Corinth, Mississippi, and now Chattanooga was close to falling. In the east, as I described in the opening paragraph, Lee could not engage in his preferred offensive-defensive strategy. The South was at a crucial point, and even more exertion was needed to turn the tide.

Lee had achieved only a limited victory in the Seven Days, according to Harsh, and he realized this after only a few days. Lee had been frustrated during the Seven Days by the failure of his generals to crush and destroy a part of the Union army. He knew he had lost heavy casualties and had by no means achieved an easy victory, and that he could ill afford many such victories in the future. Instead of helping the South strategically, the Seven Days had made things worse. McClellan now had an impregnable supply line and he could stay at Harrison’s landing indefinitely. Also, the week-long series of fights had not helped the overall picture in the east. The Confederates were everywhere on the defensive, something they could not afford for any extended period of time. The direct threat to Richmond had been considerably lessened, at the expense of Lee’s ability to maintain the initiative. Lee and Stonewall Jackson even scouted Harrison’s Landing to see if they could attack and drive McClellan away, but both agreed that this would be impossible and could not be considered an option. Lee was extremely worried that McClellan would cross over to the south side of the James and approach Richmond from that direction. Lee believed he could not stop such an advance. Lee’s strategic plans and concerns “would be shaped–if not dictated–by the looming enemy presence at Harrison’s Landing.”

Lee had another pressing concern to worry about. His army’s strength had dropped alarmingly since the Seven Days. Lee renewed his attempts to concentrate Confederate garrisons and other isolated units into the main Confederate field armies. In the end, he managed to add “19.7 regiments and approximately 13,800 men to his ranks.” Most of these units came from the Department of South Carolina and Georgia. General John C. Pemberton, commander of that Department, was offered command of a Division in Virginia from the troops he was able to round up. Not surprisingly, his concerns over threats in his department suddenly ceased to exist and he tried to scrape together as large a force as possible to take with him. In the end, Pemberton’s troops were sent to Virginia…without the general. He had been reassigned to Vicksburg and his date with destiny. North Carolina also provided five regiments, mainly because most of that state’s troops were already around Richmond. North Carolina politicians complained, but Lee wrote to them to explain his policy of concentrating troops into field armies. At this point, Richmond told states to simply forward new troops to Richmond instead of forming them into new regiments. Lee tried several other ideas to reinforce his army, but the usefulness of these ideas is difficult to judge, according to Harsh. Harsh moves on to discuss the problem of serious straggling in the ANV after the Seven Days. More than one-third of the men who should have been in Lee’s army after casualties were deducted were simply missing. Lee had expected 86,000 men, but instead was left with only 56,000. Lee knew the problem was lack of discipline, and he issued General Orders, No. 77 on July 11 to attempt to deal with this problem to some extent. A month later, Lee issued General Orders, No. 94, which directed the provost guard to follow behind each division on the march and determine if stragglers had a legitimate medical reason for falling behind. Lee also tried other ideas to greatly reduce the number of AWOL men. In addition, Lee increased daily drill so that the men took more pride in their unit and themselves. Harsh allows that Lee’s different ideas worked to a large extent, “as 13,473 men were reported to have returned to the ranks in the period from July 10 to July 20 alone.” As July wore on, Harsh says, Lee recommitted himself to pursuing “easy fighting and heavy victories”.

In the first week of July, Lee had no choice but to sit back and wait on developments. Lee also reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia at this time. Harsh points out that this “resulted from the polyglot origin of its forces and from Lee’s ongoing search for effective formations and efficient commanders.” Lee had initially favored having each division report to him directly, had used a partial “wing” structure during the Seven Days, and had finally settled on two “commands” under Longstreet and Jackson and four other independent divisions. Lee also saw the replacement of several less able generals with “superior field commanders in Anderson, Hood, McLaws, and D. H. Hill.” The information coming to Lee in early July was “conflicting and exaggerated”. Lee sifted through the intelligence and saw that the Union was on the offensive almost everywhere. In addition to the forces under Cox in West Virginia and Burnside in North Carolina, Lee now faced a new Federal army under John Pope (the Army of Virginia) which was concentrating in the Shenandoah Valley and points east. Lincoln had also called more 300,000 more volunteers, and Harsh believes Lee knew of this call due to his actions in the coming weeks. Lee knew that these troops would take time to ready for the field, and so his time to reverse the current situation was limited. Lee still believed that McClellan was his main enemy, so he at first paid no attention to Pope. But Pope threatened the Virginia Central Railroad, which brought food from the Valley to Richmond. This meant he was forced to deal with Pope, but Lee hesitated to act at first, perhaps, as Harsh points out, because of the large number of men in McClellan’s army then threatening the Confederate capital. Pope eventually gave Lee no choice. He occupied Culpeper Court House on July 12, only twenty-seven miles north of Gordonsville and the all-important Virginia Central. On July 13, Lee sent Jackson and 15,000 men north to keep an eye on Pope. At this point, Harsh calls Lee’s strategic position “severely complicated”. If Pope and McClellan both advanced, Lee would have no choice but to abandon Richmond if he didn’t want to be destroyed. Lee also learned that Burnside had been removed from North Carolina, and he was unsure where this force was headed, though he assumed it would reinforce McClellan. Lee wanted to break out of this trap obviously, but Harsh says he could think of no way to do this just yet.

Lee was paralyzed strategically, and on July 18, things only got worse. Lee heard from Jackson that two Federal units were at Winchester in the Valley and also in front of Fredericksburg. These troops were actually part of Pope’s Army, but Lee thought they were brand new threats. Lee was convinced, though, that McClellan remained the main threat and that he was being reinforced continuously. The situation remained the same until July 23, at which time Lee became even more convinced that McClellan was a sever threat and Pope almost no threat at all. Lee also encouraged William Loring to assume the offensive in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley. He hoped this effort would pull troops from the main Union armies now threatening him from two sides.On July 25, Lee learned that Stevens’s division from South Carolina had joined Little Mac, and that Burnside’s force was at Fort Monroe at the tip of the York-James Peninsula. In addition, he learned that Pope was farther west than he had originally believed, which meant he was not on a direct and threatening route to Richmond. However, Lee now directed his attention on Pope due to Pope’s mistreatment of Confederate citizens living behind his lines. Harsh says Lee’s personal dislike for Pope was much greater than his dislike of any other commander he faced in the war. On July 25, Lee first used the word “suppress” to describe what he wanted to do to Pope and his army. He wanted Jackson to assume the offensive against the Army of Virginia. Jackson said he needed reinforcements, and Lee decided to send him another division. On July 27, he sent A. P. Hill and his Light Division to help Jackson deal with Pope. With these men, Lee expected Jackson to assume the offensive, where before he had been ordered to monitor Pope and only strike exposed elements of Pope’s Army. Lee also ordered D. H. Hill to try to shell McClellan away from Harrison’s Landing if possible. This effort failed miserably, and also caused McClellan to send a force south of the James on August 3 to make sure it didn’t happen again. Lee was worried this move foreshadowed an advance against Petersburg. Jackson during this time acted very cautiously instead of attacking. Lee reacted patiently to this development, says Harsh, considering McClellan’s threatening movements in his front during this time.

On August 5, Lee received bad news from Stuart. He had encountered Federal troops advancing in force south from Fredericksburg, threatening to cut Lee’s communications with Jackson. Stuart’s stand had caused the Yankees to move back to Fredericksburg, but Stuart (and Lee) believed this force to be Burnside, freshly arrived from North Carolina. Second, Lee received reports that McClellan had reoccupied Malvern Hill. Lee ordered Hood several miles north to be in position to contest any possible advance from Burnside. But he reserved his main effort towards McClellan. Lee took five divisions, all he had north of the James, and moved them towards Malvern Hill. This threat disappeared as quickly as it had come, however. McClellan had disappeared that night. Lee now believed that McClellan’s move had been a diversion for a main thrust from the north, probably from Burnside in Lee’s opinion. Harsh says that it is clear Lee did not even begin to suspect that McClellan was leaving the Peninsula. Jackson suspected (correctly) that the force at Fredericksburg was a part of Pope’s Army, and he wanted to advance northwest to draw Pope away from his position threatening Gordonsville (and Richmond). Lee was still worried about Burnside, but he allowed Jackson to act as he saw best. Still, he pointed out to Jackson that he preferred turning movements rather than attacking an enemy in a prepared position. Jackson replied that Pope was now concentrating at Culpeper, and he saw an opportunity to attack an isolated element of Pope’s Army before the rest of that force arrived. Lee gave cautious approval to this plan, and moved Hood even further north to Hanover Junction to protect Jackson’s strategic flank. It turned out that Pope wasn’t concentrating at Culpeper, but was instead creating a lengthy defensive line that could respond to any movement Jackson decided to make. Jackson’s move to strike Banks, however, made Pope decide to concentrate at Culpeper after all to come to Banks’s aid. Jackson, due to the slow marching of Sigel’s Union Corps, enjoyed a slight numerical advantage at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, fought on August 9. Jackson pushed Banks back but suffered heavy casualties and hard fighting. Jackson’s narrow tactical victory did not completely help the strategic situation. Jackson was now outnumbered 2:1 against Pope, but Jackson’s attack had halted any designs Pope had to cut the Virginia Central Railroad. However, in the end, “when the Federals hunkered down defensively behind the Rapidan, Pope created a stalemate on the northern flank similar to the one that already existed on the James.” This meant Lee had been checked on both fronts, and he was handcuffed in the extreme. Lee was stuck defending both flanks, and a Federal thrust down the middle from Fredericksburg might break him.

This chapter was especially interesting to me. The major battles of the war in the east (with the notable exception of Petersburg) get plenty of coverage in numerous book and magazine articles. However, the period between major campaigns and battles, such as July 2-August 9, usually get short shrift. The thinking of generals between the major battles, in effect the decisions that lead to those battles, is a fascinating topic. Harsh doesn’t disappoint here. Lee was in a real predicament after the Seven Days, one which doesn’t receive much attention. In many respects, his efforts during this time were as important as his initial success in front of Richmond. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, by the way. I hope to cover the last two chapters and Harsh’s numerous interesting Appendices by the end of the holiday weekend. I’ve finished reading the book and I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion as we move to “Taken At the Flood”.

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