Seth - a Civil War Story
Copyright© 2015 by Bill Offutt
Afterwards the old men who had been the sweating generals with bushy beards, brass buttons and gold braid would argue with each other from their rocking chairs and produce leather-covered and seldom-read books about that summer, the battle they had fought and the decisions they had made. Historians would mention the short-lived campaign in a footnote, calling it just a nuisance "raid." But in the hot, dry summer of 1864, Robert E. Lee, now commander of all Confederate forces, faced a very real and a very difficult choice. The war, which had begun so brightly, was now grinding into its fourth bloody year, and the chances of the rebellious South and of his way of life surviving were growing slimmer with every frightful battle south of the Rappahannock. For all practical purposes Richmond, his forlorn capital, was already under siege and surely doomed without a miracle of some sort.
The reports on Lee's desk showed that he had fewer than 75,000 tired and hungry soldiers thinly stretched across the muddy fields in the Richmond-Petersburg area while the Union army led by Sam Grant and George Meade could muster at least 125,000 well-armed men in the same region and many more up near Washington and out in the Valley. That, Lee knew, was not the most frightening difference. He had faced and beaten long odds before. The real problem was that Grant could spend 60,000 men a month, as he had just done in May, and replace those shattered bodies with fresh troops, both black and white. For Lee there were no more replacements, no reinforcements especially since Cump Sherman threatened Atlanta and the enemy now held the whole Mississippi frontier while the Confederate Congress debated the use of slaves.
In the past month, Lee had lost nearly 25,000 men killed and wounded in a series of seemingly unending conflicts near the seat of the Rebel government. Perhaps more importantly to the future of his army and to his cause, he had buried many of his most trusted generals. In the burning Wilderness, the wooded lanes near Spotsylvania Court House and most terribly at Cold Harbor's bloody angle Lee's lean veterans had stopped the Union's desperate regiments over and over again, often in hand-to-hand combat. But instead of retreating toward the safety of Washington's sheltering forts as McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and the others had done over the long years of bloody fighting, the battered Army of the Potomac staggered back on its heels, licked it wounds, slid to its left and attacked again. Grant drove Meade's blue clad troops from defeat to defeat and had been widely quoted as saying he intended to fight it out on the Richmond line "if it takes all summer."
Lee's immediate problem, as dusk settled through the trees on this warm June evening, was the threat posed by Union General David Hunter in the Shenandoah Valley. Hunter had taken the crossroads at Staunton, and was tearing up the railroad, confiscating horses and food stuffs, and causing the croakers in Richmond to scream even louder than usual. Confederate President Jefferson Davis demanded that the Valley be cleared.
General Lee had already sent John Breckinridge with men he really could not spare to block Hunter's advance. Now word had come that the town of Lexington had fallen into Union hands and that Hunter's troopers had put the governor's home and the buildings of the Virginia Military Institute to the torch. Lee responded to Richmond's increasingly frantic demands for action by informing President Davis that it would take at least a corps to clear the Valley and that he could not risk the defense of Richmond to do so. "I think this is just what the enemy would desire," Lee had written.
But on this evening as the first cook fires kindled, the cicadas tuned up and the lightning bugs flickered in the deep woods, Robert Lee made a different decision and a half-hour past had sent a galloper to his old friend Jubal Early asking him to report at once. It had to be done, and Lee silently cursed his lack of choices as he heard horses arrive.
"Come in, General. Come in," said Lee with a tired gesture at his tent's front flap. He dismissed his aide, removed his glasses and resumed the straight-backed chair behind his cluttered desk. "Congratu-lations on your promotion. It was overdue, sir, long overdue."
Early felt uncomfortable in his new, full-dress uniform complete with its gold-chased sword, especially since his commander was plainly dressed in blue trousers and a white shirt with a string tie. "Thank you, sir," he said. "Kind of you to say so. I know I owe you much for it and for the Second Corps. I'm only sorry our old, bald-headed friend took it so hard."
"No one likes to lose a field command," Lee said, "but Ewell was never the same after they cut off his leg. Besides, I think his missus took it harder than he did. Jackson's old bunch is a fine command, and I'm glad to have you there, permanently, and at long last."
"Yessir and I appreciate it, too. All that jumping around was a bit wearing on my staff." Early smiled.
Lee sighed and leaned back, his eyes closed. He pinched his nose. "We've lost so many good men lately, men we can't possibly replace. Four generals just from your corps and of course Jeb, General Stuart. Can't get over losing him that way, makes no sense." Lee leaned forward and shuffled some papers without looking at them, his eyes hooded by the lengthening shadows.
"How's Old Pete?" Early asked, biting the end off a cigar.
"Well, General Longstreet's holding his own. The doctors are optimistic. At first I thought it was to be Jackson all over again when I heard he had been shot down by his own men. He's a very hard case. I think he will recover."
"I'm glad to hear that, sir, certainly am. I understand Wade Hampton's taking hold of the cavalry. It is true he and Fitz Lee tore up Sheridan and Custer over near Louisa?" asked Early.
"The first reports seem very encouraging." Lee scratched at his beard. "Now, General, let's get down to cases. I know that you and I generally agree that we either destroy Grant and his army or we will be destroyed by them, no two ways about it. I am convinced that we must stop his forces before they cross the James if at all possible. If they get down there, it'll become a siege." Lee shocked Early with the intensity of his gaze. "If he pushes across that river, then it's a mere question of time. I believe we will have lost the war."
Early nodded, feeling empty inside. He had never heard "Marse Robert" even suggest such an outcome before.
"Richmond insists that I do something about the Valley. I've told them that if we can't stop Grant here, then we can't hold the Valley and if we defeat Grant, we can retake the Valley. You'll not be surprised to learn that my sterling logic has not satisfied them. I have sent General Breckinridge to Lynchburg, but that's not enough for them, not nearly." Lee tossed a paper to his desk and sat up even straighter, his mouth a thin line.
"Now I have changed my mind, and I think this'll satisfy even the loudest of the politicians. I certainly hope so. Please attend, sir. I have concluded that Hunter is too dangerous where he is. He threatens to cut off much of our food supply. Second, we must move over to the offensive if we are to defeat Grant and Meade." Lee stopped, put his spectacles back on and looked at Early for a reaction. From outside the quiet room came the distant sounds of clinking cooking pots, snuffling horses and busy insects.
"Shall I find another lantern?" Early asked.
Lee shook his head. "You have the Second Corps back off the line. I want you to hold them ready, along with your artillery, your light artillery, leave the heavies here, and then move into the Shenandoah Valley. I'll have written orders for you tomorrow. Strike quickly on Hunter at Lexington and destroy his force or drive him out." Lee looked up and smiled briefly, his finger on the map. "He isn't much; we both know that. Then, General, you'll be on your own. You may go as far down the Valley as you can. Leesburg, Harpers Ferry, wherever you think best, cross into Maryland if possible and make as much of a move as you can toward Baltimore and Washington. It must look like a real threat. Perhaps we can even free some of our prisoners." Lee pointed toward the mouth of the Potomac on his map.
Early started to ask a question, but Lee's raised hand stopped him. "Grant'll be forced to delay his attack down here, or it will be Cold Harbor all over again I'm sure. I don't see how they could stand another of those days." Lee shook his head in disbelief. "Or Lincoln will demand that he send men back to defend Washington City because of your threat, in which case, I will attack him. We must move over to the offensive, don't you agree?"
"Yes sir, I certainly do. And you honor me and..."
"Good, good," Lee brushed aside the polite compliment. "You know the Valley well; so do many of your men. Back in '62 Jackson, well, you're aware of all that."
"Yes, sir. We'll give them something to think about." Early stood, still stooped by his rheumatism, and saluted his commanding officer. He turned to leave, his unlit cigar clamped in his teeth.
"General, " Lee said, "whatever you do, don't get cut off. Try to keep your command intact and your way back home open. The fords are vital. We need you and your Army of the Valley, every man, every rifle."
Early only nodded and adjusted his white felt hat with its huge, black plume. Already he was seeing the stripped fortifications of Washington in his mind's eye, the empty trenches, the unmanned cannon. He knew he could do it. The race toward Washington's weakened defenses was on, and as one historian of the conflict later noted, "For a time he made a continent hold its breath."