In our short course on the U.S. Civil War, we — or rather Union forces —made it as far as the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, in 1862. There the grinding war, barely a year old, might have been brought to a triumphant close had cocky, but overcautious, Union general-in-chief George McClellan pressed his advantage in men and materiel and kept pounding until his army overwhelmed the Confederate capital.
Instead, Richmond held, for a couple of reasons: McClellan was duped into thinking that the undermanned Rebels had superior forces that would flank him and launch a pell-mell attack on Washington to his rear. And the wounding of southern commander Joseph E. Johnston prompted Confederate president Jefferson Davis to give brilliant, gallant Robert E. Lee command of what would soon be called the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee stopped his dithering opponent in his tracks.
As McClellan, whom President Lincoln promptly demoted, slunk back north with his survivors, Lee would surreptitiously follow.
And the war would drag on for three long and gruesome years.
Second Bull Run
August 28-30, 1862. Just as the Confederates were welcoming their courtly but cunning new commander, the Union brought in a winner as well. John Pope had led Federal troops to victory on several western battlefields, and he was summoned to Washington to take command of the forces around the northern capital, including McClellan’s humbled remnants. Pope envisioned only a brief rehearsal before the Union would, once and for all, march south again — surely triumphantly this time — straight to Richmond.
Lee had other ideas. He and his men snuck northward, joined his bold and ruthless deputy, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and pounced upon Pope’s army along Bull Run — the very spot where Confederate forces had first routed the Union Army and deflated its notion of invulnerability a year earlier.
Second Bull Run was déjà vu in its humiliation of Yankee commanders, only this time, civilians, savvy enough not to count on a Union rout of the Rebel rabble a second time, were nowhere in sight.
Pope lost the battle, 10,000 men killed and wounded, and his command, as the Yankees again scrambled back toward Washington.
September 17, 1862. Flush with success around Richmond and at Second Manassas — I’ll allow the Confederate nomenclature for Bull Run here since the Rebs won twice there — Lee pressed his advantage into the North itself, to the alarm of his bluecoat opponents and the sheer panic of the already jittery northern population.
Lee’s intent was to relieve war-weary Virginia, scare Washington half to death, and present Maryland’s harvest to his hungry troops. More generally, the foray might entice France and England to recognize the Confederacy, win over sympathetic, border-state Maryland, or prompt northern Democrats to demand an end to the war.
Leaving troops behind to deal with Yankee resistance in western Virginia, Lee led his ragged army over the Potomac River into Maryland and occupied Frederick — which turned out to be not sympathetic at all. Its townspeople spat on his men as invaders, not liberators.
And before long, not far away, Union general McClellan, pouting and simmering over his demotion but still sent to confront Lee, would find his backbone, if ever so briefly.
Near the little town of Sharpsburg on what would turn out to be the bloodiest day in American history, 23,000 men died or were wounded in hand-to-hand combat in a cornfield and a sunken country road. It would take a miracle force-march from Harpers Ferry, Virginia, across the Potomac by Confederate Major General A.P. Hill to save Lee and his men from a catastrophic rout.
“Marse Robert” retreated back into Virginia and, not surprisingly, McClellan, resuming his pussyfooting ways, chose not to pursue. Furious, Lincoln cursed his “case of the slows” and traveled all the way from Washington to chastise the man who one day, toward war’s end, would unsuccessfully challenge him for the presidency.
“It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass,” concurred the Union’s top commander, Henry Halleck. Still, Lincoln felt confident enough in the gravitas of the Union’s victory at Antietam to declare the emancipation of slaves in those states “then in rebellion.”
He might have known that with Robert E. Lee still about, that confidence would be a tad premature.
December 11-15, 1862. Because it lay smack between the Union and Confederate capitals, the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was an inviting target. Four significant engagements — including Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and the “Wilderness Campaign” in the surrounding countryside — would be fought there or nearby over the following two years.
Events began with Lincoln’s complete sacking of McClellan over his failure to pursue Lee. “Little Mac’s” successor, Ambrose Burnside — whose mutton-chop whiskers would inspire the term “sideburns” — hurried the Union’s Army of the Potomac toward Fredericksburg, envisioning a straight shot at, you guessed it, Richmond.
But Burnside’s advance across the Rappahannock River stalled long enough for Stonewall Jackson’s troops to quick-march from the Shenandoah Valley and join Lee in occupying Marye’s Heights and other strategic points around Fredericksburg. The well-entrenched Confederates beat back Federal assaults with relative ease. Having botched his chance, Burnside, too, lost his command.
March 29-July 4, 1863. New Orleans, the South’s largest city and a colossus of trade on the Mississippi River, had already fallen to the Yankees. But powerful Confederate batteries upstream at Vicksburg, Mississippi, denied the Union control of the mighty river. So dogged, cigar-chomping Ulysses S. Grant was dispatched to do something about it.
He ordered a canal dug to bypass the city, but the work in the heat, humidity, and mosquito swarms sickened his men and was abandoned. So Grant marched his troops down the Louisiana, or western, side of the river, joined forces with the Union gunboat fleet, crossed back east into Mississippi, and took off after the meandering Rebel army of Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, who quickly retreated to Vicksburg.
Disregarding orders to evacuate the citadel, Pemberton opted to stay and fight. For 47 days, Grant’s cannon and Admiral David Porter’s gunboats laid waste to Vicksburg with a form of warfare as old as the Trojan War. On the anniversary of American independence — the same day Lee would withdraw from Pennsylvania, as you’ll read next time — Pemberton capitulated. Five days later, nearby Port Hudson also surrendered its fort, and with it, Confederate dominion over the Mississippi.
May 1-6, 1863. If George McClellan, who by his mid-30s had earned the nickname “The Young Napoleon,” could not corral and thrash crafty Robert E. Lee, maybe a general nicknamed “Fightin’ Joe” could.
Joseph Hooker, the new commander of Union forces sent south to crush the main Confederate army, devised a clever pincers maneuver to draw Lee out of Fredericksburg and send him running to save Richmond. Hooker planned to dispatch his cavalry to cut Rebel communications with the capital while moving the bulk of his forces across the Rappahannock River, north of Fredericksburg.
“May God have mercy on General Lee,” Hooker snorted, “for I will have none.”
Lee audaciously divided his own forces, sending Jackson on a brilliant flanking maneuver along a plank road while thrusting into Hooker’s superior forces above Fredericksburg.
Shaken, Hooker retired to safer ground. After another pummeling the next day, he pulled his forces back across the Rappahannock.
But “Lee’s greatest victory” would be his saddest, for in fighting around the crossroads Virginia town of Chancellorsville, “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded — by friendly fire. Mistaking him for a marauding Yankee, Rebel soldiers shot their own general twice in the arm. Aides carried him to a field hospital, where doctors removed the shattered limb. “He has lost his left arm,” Lee is said to have remarked. “I have lost my right arm.”
His right-hand man, in other words.
Jackson was evacuated to a friendly plantation to recuperate. Instead, this lionhearted commander contracted pneumonia and died. To this day, southerners forever wonder how the course of the war would have changed had this eccentric former artillery instructor at Virginia Military Institute lived to fight on.
Eccentric? Well, Jackson was a religious zealot who constantly sucked on lemons, would not let his back touch a chair, and would stand for hours with his right hand over his head to restore what he thought was an inner imbalance.
Robert E. Lee knew that his victory at Chancellorsville, while sweet, could not be savored. Superior Yankee forces would eventually overcome his men and their own generals’ bumbling. So he would cook up one more, go-for-broke, jab into the Union midsection.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Citadel. A fortress, particularly one like a castle high atop a medieval town.
Foray. A sudden, often unexpected, attack into enemy territory.
Pussyfooting. Proceeding with excessive wariness or caution. The term is borrowed from a pussycat’s deliberate and cautious inspection of a dangerous situation.