June 28, 1863, 8:00 PM
Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
The shadows of twilight deepened across the orchards and wheat fields of the Cumberland Valley. The day had been hot, the air heavy with damp heat; now the first stirring of a cooling breeze came down from out of the hills. Fireflies danced through the branches of apple, peach, and cherry trees; crickets sang; and as he rode through the rows of the orchard he breathed the rich evening air of summer, feeling a moment of peace.
He looked up at the moon riding in the eastern sky, nearly full, glowing with an orange warmth, the cold light of the stars beginning to fill the heavens.
As he approached the knoll, the orchard gave way to pasture, the fence dividing the two fields broken down, the split rails so laboriously cut and laid in place gone, except for a few upright posts. He had spoken more than once about this, to not touch the property of these people, but after a hard day's march such fences were easy to burn, and the pasture ahead was dotted with glowing fires. An entire winter of a farmer's labor to fence this field gone now in a single night.
He reined in, not wanting to venture closer to where the troops were camped. Shadows moved about the flickering lights, the scent of wood smoke drifting on the cool breeze mingled with all the other scents of the army ... horses, men, food cooking, grease, sweat-soaked wool uniforms, oiled leather, latrines, the heavy mix both repugnant and comforting, the smells that had been his life for over thirty years.
Songs floated on the wind. A boy, Irish from the sound of him, was singing "He's Gone Away." He listened for a moment, feeling a cool shiver, "... But he's coming back, if he goes ten thousand miles."
The boy finished. The song had struck a nerve. More than one of the men coughed to hide the tears; there was a forced laugh, then another song; it sounded like "The Girl I Left Behind Me," but the lyrics were not familiar. He suddenly caught one of the stanzas. It was not the traditional song; it was one of the new verses that soldiers always enjoyed making up.
lHe listened for a moment, and in the shadows he allowed himself to smile. It wasn't as obscene as some and no worse than some of the songs he had sung when a cadet at the Point so many years ago.
He thought of Thomas Jackson. Thomas would have ridden straight into the camp and scattered them, then delivered a stern sermon about such sinful practices, urging the men to pray instead.
Thomas, how I miss you.
The voices around the nearest campfire stilled. Some of the men turned, were looking his way; he heard the whispers.
"Marse Robert. It's him, I tell you. It's General Lee."
He caught a glimpse of an officer stepping away from the fire, coming toward him.
No. Not now.
He lifted his reins; just the slightest nudge and Traveler turned, breaking into a slow canter, and he rode into the shadows. Tracing the edge of the pasture, he followed the broken line of the fence for another fifty yards, the ground rising ahead, climbing to a woodlot. At a corner of the field was a towering oak, gnarled, ancient, a remnant of the great forest that had once covered this land, spared by a farmer long ago, perhaps as a reminder of what the land had once been.
No one was about, and he stopped beneath its vast, spreading branches. Atop the knoll the Cumberland Valley spread out before him, a vast arc of farmsteads, villages, and his army, the Army of Northern Virginia. Ten thousand campfires glowed, spreading up and down the length of the valley, great blazing circles of light. Where the more restless had gathered, there was singing and laughing.
He remembered the night before the Battle of Sharpsburg last fall, the way the Union campfires had glowed on the far side of Antietam Creek and the surrounding hills. As he'd ridden to inspect their lines, he had commented to Jackson on the vastness of the Union host descending upon them.
"Won't be as many of their fires tomorrow night," Thomas had replied coldly.
"Thomas is dead." He whispered the words softly, a simple statement of fact that carried so much weight, perhaps the very outcome of the war.
You have lost your left arm, but I have lost my right. That is what he had sent as a message upon hearing of Jackson's wounding last month at Chancellorsville. And then he had died. How I miss that right arm tonight, he thought sadly. If Jackson were here, I would know without a moment's doubt how to react. But all had changed now.
Where was the Union's Army of the Potomac camped tonight? This morning he had thought they were a hundred miles off, still down in northern Virginia and around Washington. An hour ago he had learned the truth.
The Dutchman, his trusted commander of First Corps, Gen. James "Pete" Longstreet, had come to him with a spy. He had never liked spies, though they were as much a part of war as any soldier and at times far more important than having an extra division on the field. The spy was an actor Pete had hired on his own.
That in itself said something, that his second in command had spent a fair sum of money to send an actor across the fields, villages, and towns of Maryland and Pennsylvania in search of the Army of the Potomac. That was a job Jeb Stuart and his cavalry were supposed to perform, not someone who strutted upon the stage.
The Army of the Potomac was coming north. It was not in Washington; it was coming north and moving fast. By tomorrow night its campfires would be lit not thirty miles from here.
Stuart had failed him. Reports should have been flooding in, detailing the movement of every division in the Union army. There had not been a single word. For that matter he couldn't even tell for sure where Stuart was at this moment. There was the other side of the coin as well. If Stuart had failed to report in, he had most likely failed as well in his other task of screening the movement of this army. He had to assume that the Army of the Potomac might indeed know where he was, how his forces were spread out all the way from the Maryland border to Harrisburg ... and just how vulnerable he was.
I should have known three days back that those people were on the march and following, he thought bitterly. Not tonight, not like this, from a spy slipping through the lines to whisper his report, declaiming his lines as if I were part of a breathless audience hanging on every word.
The anger began to flare. "Damn!"
He knew that if those who followed him had heard that single word it would have sent a shock through the entire army. "The Old Man was so angry he swore," they'd whisper. Staff would have stood stock-still in stunned silence; generals noted for their command of Anglo-Saxon would have been rooted in place.
They make me too much a statue of marble, he thought. I have already become a legend to them. Legends can create victory. Convince your men that they can win, convince the enemy they cannot win, and the battle is half decided before the first shot is fired.
He dismounted, loosely holding Traveler's reins so that his old companion lowered his head to crop the rich clover of the pasture. He sat down under the oak tree, a mild groan escaping him as he settled back, resting his head against the rough bark, and he let the reins go.
They're coming North. That means a fight soon, maybe as early as two days from now, definitely within a week. It is, after all, what I wanted, but not quite yet. And not here, not on the Union army's terms.
A shower of sparks swirled up from the nearest campfire as another rail was tossed onto the flames, another song started, "Lorena."
He listened, humming absently.
"The years creep slowly by, Lorena,
"The snow is on the grass again ..."
His wife, Mary, loved that one; so had his daughter Annie, the memory of her stabbing his heart.
"'Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
"But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart."
Dear Annie, to think of her thus, returning to dust. His youngest daughter dead at twenty-three the winter before. She had gone off to North Carolina to marry, and now she was gone forever.
Only last week a major from a North Carolina regiment had come to his tent, nervous, respectful. He had been home recovering from wounds and just wanted to say that Annie was buried in the churchyard of his village, that the grave was well tended, fresh flowers placed upon it by the local women. The officer had actually choked back tears as he spoke, then saluted as he retired. He thanked the major, closed his tent flap, and silently wept, a rare luxury, to be alone for a few minutes to cry for a lost child before others came, looking for orders, for advice, looking for a commander who could not be seen to weep.
He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter he had been writing to his wife, Mary, until yet again command had interfered, Longstreet arriving with his spy. Though it was dark, he knew the letter by heart already, having labored over it, trying to find just the right tone to still her fears.
My dearest wife,
I take pen in hand praying that this missive finds you well, and that the protection of our blessed Savior rest upon you.
I write to you this evening with news which we must bear calmly. As you know from my last letter our son Rooney was wounded on June 8th in the action at Brandy Station. As I assured you then his injury was not serious; neither bone nor artery was damaged. I stayed with him throughout that night before leaving to embark upon this campaign the following morning. I was just informed this day, however, that Rooney was taken prisoner last week. Captured in the house where he had been resting and has been sent to Fortress Monroe. Thankfully our young Robert, who was tending to him, was able to escape capture and is safely back in our lines.
My dear wife, do not be overly concerned. Though this bitter and terrible struggle has divided our country, it has not severed all bonds of friendship between old comrades nor has it stilled all sentiments of Christian charity. I am certain that friends of old on the other side, upon hearing of our son's plight, will come to his aid and insure his well being and restoration to health.
Though I can ask no special favors, I am certain that our beloved son will soon be listed for exchange and returned safely to our loving embrace.
I know that your prayers are joined with mine for the protection of our son. That we pray, as well, that this campaign shall bring an ending to this bitter conflict.
He folded the letter up, looking back across the valley. No father should be asked to fight a battle into which his own sons must be sent. When first he had seen them carrying Rooney back from the fight, features pale, thigh slashed open, he had feared the worst and nearly lost his composure. And though he was certain that friends would indeed intervene to ensure Rooney's protection, nevertheless there were some who might do him harm. It was obvious that the cavalry raid to capture Rooney had been launched for no other reason than to seize his son.
So far we've managed to keep the deeper darkness at bay, he thought. In most civil wars Rooney would have been hanged, if for no other reason than to bring me pain. We've fought so far with some degree of chivalry, the memories of old comradeship tempering the fury, but for how much longer can we do that? It has to end soon. It has to end; otherwise the rift will become too deep. It has to end as well, he realized, because if not, we will surely lose.
The song "Lorena" ended; a harmonica struck up a jig; some of the men began dancing, the firelight casting cavorting shadows across the pasture.
He wished he could give them another week, better yet two weeks, of this easy campaigning, living off the rich land, fattening up, getting ready for what lay ahead, but Longstreet and his actor had changed all that.
But while he would have preferred another week, he knew, as well, that he was not up here for a leisurely march; ultimately he was here to fight, and this time to fight a battle that would end the war.
That was the plan he had laid out before President Davis a little more than a month ago. It started when Secretary of War Seddon suggested that part of Longstreet's corps be detached and sent west to relieve the besieged city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi. He had gone down to Richmond to meet with President Davis and the cabinet to present a counterproposal to win the war through a decisive victory in the East.
He tried to remember this Grant who was emerging so rapidly as the Union leader in the West and who had been so aggressive in besieging Vicksburg. So many other faces he could recall: comrades of old from Mexico; from the west plains of Texas; from the parade ground at West Point; John Reynolds, who was Commandant of Cadets at the Academy; Winfield Hancock; Fitz John Porter, his old aide-decamp, all now stood against him-and yet he could fondly remember their voices, their laughter, their friendship.
Many of the younger ones had been cadets at the Point when he was superintendent, a memory that burned hard when he read the casualty lists in the Northern papers and saw more than one name from those days, a boy who had come to a Sunday tea at his home, or one whom he had gently chided for a minor infraction and was now dead, in effect killed by him.
Grant, though, was someone he did not know enough to understand and therefore could not second-guess; and if Grant should win at Vicksburg, he knew they'd bring him east. No, it had to end before then.
He had argued against reacting directly to Grant at Vicksburg. By the time they deployed Longstreet west, the fight might very well be over. Besides, that would leave him with less than fifty thousand men, and surely the Army of the Potomac would come swinging in again, especially if they knew that a third of his forces were gone.
No, take the war into the North. Get into the rich farmlands of Pennsylvania to feed his troops, threaten a state capital, perhaps even take it. That would bring the Army of the Potomac out into the open. We then pick the place, lure them in, and finish it.
Up here in Pennsylvania there would be no falling back; it would be a fight in the open, a chance for an Austerlitz, a Waterloo, the two great battles taught at the Point as classic examples of decisive victory. Do that and end it. Such a victory would leave Washington open for the taking, could perhaps even swing England and France to our side and end the war before winter.
Such a thing, however, required the crucial first step, another slaughtering match with the Army of the Potomac.
Copyright © 2003 Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen