Confederate Tide Rising, Part 6

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

“Richmond was never so safe”: Lee Evolves a Border Strategy, August 9-26, 1862

Lee was in an unenviable strategic position, with Jackson confronting Pope on the left flank near Culpeper Court House, Lee confronting McClellan on the right near Richmond, and the potential for an unguarded Union force to approach Richmond against Lee’s nonexistent center by moving south via Fredericksburg. Clearly, something was needed to break this impasse for Lee. He got his wish when McClellan was ordered by Henry Halleck to evacuate the Peninsula and sail north for a concentration with Pope’s Union Army of Virginia. Interestingly enough, however, Lee seems to have been heading north even before he got word that McClellan was withdrawing. He had decided to gamble on whether or not McClellan would attack Richmond in his absence, and he was willing to bet that the Union commander would stay put at Harrison’s Landing. On August 9, before he could have even received word of the results of the Battle at Cedar Mountain and before McClellan had boarded his transports, Lee ordered Longstreet’s Division north to break the strategic deadlock. The divisions of Evans and D. R. Jones soon followed. Pope was waiting for Lee behind the Rapidan River, but he also had the Rappahannock at his back. Eventually Pope retreated beyond the Rappahannock as well when Lee tried to flank him. Harsh gives Pope high marks for his success against these initial southern efforts to turn his flanks. Eventually, Lee sent Jackson west through the Shenandoah Valley, then north, and finally east again. He appeared in Pope’s rear and burned the main Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. Lee had again used a turning movement to get an enemy to retreat from a strong position.

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When Burnside was reported at Fredericksburg, Lee decided he had to act before it was too late. On August 9, he decided to risk everything by moving a large portion of his force guarding Richmond north to help Jackson “suppress” Pope. Lee decided to send Longstreet’s entire command of 20,000 north to reinforce Jackson to a total of 40,000. This was half of the Army of Northern Virginia. At first, Lee did not travel with this force. He instead planned on having Longstreet turn Pope’s left flank while Lee looked after McClellan’s host. Harsh believes Lee must have discussed this move with Davis and gained his approval. Lee, as he would do throughout the war, preferred to stay with his main body and send striking forces out under the command of top subordinates. Around August 12, after most of of Longstreet’s brigades had departed, Lee received word that McClellan was again advancing on Malvern Hill, but it turned out to be a feint. On August 13, the strain on Lee was lessened considerably. First, Lee received word that McClellan was evacuating the Peninsula. At the same time, Lee was told that Burnside was marching west from Fredericksburg to join Pope. Instead of three columns, Lee would now–for a time–face only one. Lee sent Hood’s Division north and also realized he could take command himself against Pope. On August 14, a kind of race began between Lee and McClellan. Could Lee attack and defeat Pope before McClellan moved to support him? Harsh says the Confederates were destined to win unless they delayed for some reason. At this time, Longstreet told Lee that it would be better to turn Pope’s right flank instead of his left, and he asked Lee to come to Gordonsville and take command himself. That clinched it for Lee. He left a third “wing” of the Army of Northern Virginia in Richmond under G. W. Smith (the divisions of Anderson, McLaws, D. H. Hill, Hampton’s Cavalry Brigade, and the Artillery Reserve). Anderson was soon ordered to get ready to move north as well. Lee told Davis he had left 72,000 men at Richmond, but this was the aggregate number present and absent. The true PFD number was around 40,000. Ironically, this was the same thing McClellan had done with Lincoln prior to embarking on his Peninsula Campaign.

Lee left Richmond on the morning of August 15, bound for Gordonsville and a showdown with Pope. Harsh says that Lee had acted boldly in the previous week, “especially in deciding to send Longstreet to Gordonsville before knowing of McClellan’s withdrawal.” Harsh points out that Lee had done this out of desperation, rather than through some penchant for aggressiveness. He simply had no other choice given the possibility of a Union advance on three fronts. Luckily enough for Lee, as he made this decision, two of the three prongs of this potential Union advance evaporated. At this point, Lee still wanted to turn Pope’s left rather than his right to try to drive a wedge between Pope and any potential reinforcements. Harsh says that the tactical plan Lee devised would not have worked in the way he wanted. Pope had changed his dispositions and was now situated snugly behind the Rapidan River. Lee’s supposed turning movement would instead hit Pope in his left-center and possibly could have turned into another frontal assault. The movement never happened due to slow marching and other delays. Pope received indications of this aggression, and he found it prudent to retreat north behind the Rappahannock to wait for McClellan. Lee, deciding to wait a few days, observed Pope’s Army from the top of Clark’s Mountain. There he saw the Federals retreating, and he had a decision to make. How far north should he go to pursue Pope’s army? The Confederate government had fully supported Lee on this move north, but what was the limit? Lee told Richmond to keep most of Smith’s “third wing” behind the North Anna River, north of Richmond, so that they could respond to other threats on Richmond. Lee knew that he would not yet have his entire army with him on this advance, and he moved forward to contact with Pope along the Rappahannock.

Davis was surprised that Pope had retreated, but he “gave Lee implicit permission to pursue Pope farther from Richmond” in a telegram exchange. Davis did demand that Lee leave the force at North Anna to guard against threats from the direction of Fredericksburg, however. Harsh says that this conversation shows that both Lee and Davis were surprise by the success achieved so far without a major battle being fought. At this point, Lee decided to scrap his plan of turning Pope’s left, and he finally settled on a move west against his right. Initially, this swing did not envision the wide flanking march Jackson eventually embarked on. However, efforts to turn Pope’s immediate right failed due to the Bull Run Mountains, upon which he had anchored his flank. To make matters worse, Pope was sending out units to hound Lee’s own right, which guarded his communications. At this point Lee wrote Davis a letter urging that attacks be launched elsewhere to prevent Pope from being reinforced. He also asked Davis for reinforcements from among the troops still guarding Richmond. On August 21, Lee had captured a Pope dispatch to Halleck detailing the strength and locations of the Army of Virginia. Lee now realized that the Confederates could not turn Pope’s right along the Rappahannock line. He also feared that if he didn’t do something soon McClellan would reinforce Pope. In fact, Porter’s Union V Corps, Army of the Potomac, was already nearby. Lee, as was so often the case, had to take the offensive to prevent too large a concentration of enemy troops. Lee wrote Davis and ordered up the remaining Confederate forces on his own. He asked that Davis intervene if he disagreed. Harsh says that this shows Lee’s willingness to assume responsibility. More importantly, it reduced Davis’s direct culpability in the event of a failure while at the same time forcing him to act…unless he wanted to overrule someone he claimed he had complete confidence in and who had been successful up to this point. Lee was determined to take the offensive, even if it meant pulling Davis along with him to some extent.

And so, “on the afternoon of August 24, Lee rolled the die.” He had decided to send Stonewall Jackson and his wing on a flanking march west of the Bull Run Mountains to turn Pope’s right flank and destroy a portion of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Longstreet would stay behind to keep Pope locked in place. In keeping with Harsh’s theme, this was a turning movement to give Lee more easy fighting and a heavy victory. Harsh says Lee’s strategy is open to criticism in this case. If the O&A Railroad was cut, Pope might change his base by heading east to Fredericksburg…right into the reinforcements from McClellan. Also, Pope might pull back behind Bull Run, too near Washington, D.C. to be of much use to Lee. Harsh believes Lee may have wanted to hit Pope’s army as it reacted to Jackson’s flanking march, but Harsh points out that this may have not done much given Longstreet’s lack of men. Lastly, Pope could even take the offensive against Lee’s now weakened main body.

Harsh decides at this point to ask what Lee could have done on August 24. In other words, what options were open to the general? Harsh says that Lee had six total options available. The first two strategies are defensive in nature. First, Lee could dig in right where he was along the Rappahannock. This would allow the area of central Virginia behind his front lines a few weeks of freedom from enemy control. Otherwise it didn’t help. Second, Lee could pull back to a stronger defensive line closer to Richmond, probably on the North Anna River. This would leave central Virginia open to the enemy and move him closer to the siege he wished to avoid at all costs. Harsh says Lee never really thought about a defensive move at this juncture. He needed to take the offensive to retain the initiative. Harsh looks at the offensive options next. First, Lee could assault Pope frontally. If you’ve been paying attention boys and girls, you’ll know that Lee’s entire purpose was always to avoid this sort of situation if possible. Second, Lee could try to flank Pope along the Rappahannock. He had been trying to do this for a week already, and Pope had frustrated him the entire time in this pursuit. To make matters worse, Pope’s right was anchored on the Bull Run Mountains, and McClellan’s men were approaching from Pope’s left. Third, Lee could try a wide turn to the east. This however, would bring him directly into McClellan’s path and was out of the question. The final option, a wide turn to the west, was all that Lee had left to try, so he did it.

Lee apparently didn’t use written orders for the move, and he did not give very detailed instructions either. He simply told his subordinates the basic plan and they were left to fill in the details. Jackson and Lee both later commented on the plan, and it is apparent that Jackson did not have specific instructions as to what he was to do once the railroad had been broken. According to Harsh, Lee did not want a major battle near Manassas because any victory, with Washington and its massive fortifications so close, did not offer good opportunities for any follow-up. Harsh believes Lee wanted to cut the O&A, and then fall back into the Shenandoah Valley, that perfectly shaped invasion route that so scared Northern leaders. Harsh says either Lee didn’t mention to Jackson that he only wanted a raid, or that Jackson “violated the spirit of his orders.” According to the author, the former is most likely. Longstreet’s role, according to Lee himself, was to threaten Pope for awhile and then follow Jackson and meet up with him at a point as yet to be determined. This plan was a turning movement whose goal was to get Pope to leave his strong Rappahannock defensive line. Usually, a turning movement is also meant to allow the turning side an opportunity to strike the enemy on its retreat. Harsh again says that this was not the case in late August. He says that Lee simply wanted to force Pope to fall back. This would free up a good amount of Northern Virginia from enemy occupation, and Lee could then keep the Yankees away for an extended period of time by threatening Washington. Lee originally thought he would have to hold Pope for a period of days, but the “miscreant” surprised him and left only 36 hours after Jackson began his turning movement. Longstreet and Lee soon followed in Jackson’s footsteps in an effort to rejoin him. Harsh critiques Lee on his use of cavalry. He had only sent one regiment north with Jackson, and then he overcompensated by sending Stuart with two whole brigades a day later. Lee then had no cavalry of his own with the main body.

Lee knew his plan had to happen fast, because McClellan’s troops were on their way. Jackson’s wing of 23,000 men PFD marched 25 miles in only 14 hours on his first days march. By the end of the second, he had done the same, reaching Bristoe Station and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Pope had been planning to shift his men to the southeast, towards McClellan. However, his men saw the dust clouds kicked up by Jackson’s turning movement and concluded Lee’s entire army had moved into the Shenandoah to launch an invasion north of the Potomac. Soon enough, however, Pope learned from returning trains that his supply line had been cut at Bristoe Station. He also scouted his front and discovered that Confederates still occupied the southern bank of the Rappahannock in force. Hence, he knew the Confederates had split their army into 2 or 3 separate forces. Pope decided to try to trap the wing that had gone on the turning movement, and he gave orders accordingly. Lee believed that this shifting of the war north, even for a little while, would “be a great gain”. At this point on August 25, Lee waited for his plan to begin its work, and he wrote several letters. One again asked that William Loring undertake an offensive in the Kanawha Valley to prevent reinforcements from coming to Pope from that direction. He also asked that Richmond’s defenses be improved and that the last wing of his army be sent north as quickly as possible. Lee also received word that a portion of McClellan’s army had reached Pope. Harsh does not know if Lee knew the size and composition of this force (Heintzelman’s III Corps, Army of the Potomac). Lee also may or may not have known that this force had come from Alexandria. Lee assumed reinforcements were coming from Aquia Landing and thence from Fredericksburg. If they were coming from Alexandria and Washington, D.C. instead, forcing Pope north would only drive him into McClellan’s arms. Lee again asked Davis to send reinforcements north. By August 26, Lee was facing Pope along the Rappahannock with 28,000 men and no hope of quick reinforcement. However, later that day, Lee received word from Davis that he was allowing almost all troops defending the capital to come north. Davis had left only two small brigades to guard Richmond, and had done so against his better judgment because he had faith in Lee. Harsh says this kind of trust simply would not occur in the North during the first three years of the war. He believes it at least partly explains some of Lee’s early victories over his opponents. Davis’ trust was reaping many benefits. Richmond was saved, and now most of Virginia was free from Yankee occupation. Harsh closes by recalling the words of Charles Marshall after the war, “It was a saying of General Lee that Richmond was never so safe as when its defenders were absent.”

I’ve read John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run several times, but I haven’t in awhile. After reading and understanding Harsh’s views on Lee’s strategy, I need to go back and reread Hennessy’s early chapters to see how they compare. Luckily, I’ve got most of a cold, rainy Sunday to accomplish this task. Some time in the next few days, I’ll probably post a blog entry encouraging discussion of Harsh’s views (and the views of any other authors you may have read). To me, this is the essence of what makes Harsh such a good author (and I say that after only having read this book). He makes you want to go out and explore other sources to see if they fit into his overall thesis for Lee’s (and by extension the Confederate government’s) strategy during the war. I’ll be back also in the next few days with the final chapter covering the time period from August 26-September 2, basically the Battle of Second Manassas and the Battle of Chantilly, and also Harsh’s many interesting appendices.

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2 responses to “Confederate Tide Rising, Part 6”

  1. Brad Meyer Avatar
    Brad Meyer

    Here I think you gloss over one of the two of the really interesting points in the whole book. The first concerns what spurred Lee to send Longstreet to suspercede Jackson. Harsh doesn’t speculate on the cause but I think it quite possible that the final straw might have been Jackson message of 8 Aug anouncing the botched march of that date along with Jackson’s expectation “of little success” due to the botch. The other is the events surrounding the issuance of SO 181 moveing troops to Gordonsville when all the troops involved were either already there or on the march. Harsh does devote an appendix to this with much speculation, but none of it really satisfying. I wonder if Lee had felt so pressured he made the initial moves without informing Davis and took the opportunity to effectively resync Davis with the actual reality of the situation. It is more deviousness then Lee was wont to display, but it was the worst conditions he faced until the end of the war.

  2. Brett Schulte Avatar


    I agree that this is an interesting topic. In these blog entries, I’m just trying to give readers an idea of what Harsh is all about, so I don’t delve into many ideas outside of what Harsh says, his views versus others’ views on Lee’s intentions just before Second Manassas being an exception. In fact, as I went back and read several of the books on the Second Manassas Campaign, one author (which one escapes me at the moment) talks about Lee NOT wanting to replace Jackson with Longstreet, and says Lee couldn’t have wanted Longstreet to take command. That struck me as fairly odd considering Longstreet outranked Jackson, and Lee would have known Longstreet would be in charge if he sent him forward. I still need to finish up my coverage of _Confederate Tide Rising_ today, so I’ll address what Harsh has to say about the Gordosnville orders there.

    Brett S.

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