THE SOUTHERN COMMANDERS
In both North and South the early months of 1861 clearly signaled the onset of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, viewed as a decisive victory for the abolitionists on the slavery issue, had splintered the traditional political parties and divided the nation as never before. Emancipation had become a creed, states’ rights a dogma. By February 1, all the states of the Deep South—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—had seceded, and soon would form the core of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, like many Southern leaders, vowed he would fight for secession if necessary. “I glory in Mississippi’s star,” he declared. “But before I would see it dishonored I would tear it from its place, to be set on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign around which her bravest and best shall meet the harvest home of death.”1 Yet as late as March 4, making his inaugural address, Lincoln pressed for reconciliation. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” he implored. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living hearth and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 2
The shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12 changed all that. Davis, now president of the Confederacy, ordered Pierre Beauregard, newly named brigadier in its army, to make the attack when the North tried to reinforce its garrison. The seceded states had occupied most of the Federal property within their borders, but a few strongholds remained, and Fort Sumter was one of them. Its surrender escalated hostilities. When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, Virginia and the states of the Upper South moved closer to secession themselves.
No one watched these developments with more concern than Colonel Robert E. Lee, called back to Washington that spring by 75-year-old Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War and long his mentor. On April 18, Lee crossed the long bridge over the Potomac from Arlington to the capital and kept two fateful appointments. The first was with Francis Preston Blair Sr., former editor of the influential Congressional Globe and a power in Washington politics since the days of Andrew Jackson. Blair had already become a confidant of Lincoln, and had been authorized to offer Lee command of the force being mobilized to invade the South. “I told him what President Lincoln wanted him to do,” he would say. “He wanted him to take command of the army.” 3 After more than thirty years in service, inching his way up the promotional ladder, Lee must have been tempted; but he only shook his head. “If I owned the four million slaves of the South I would sacrifice then all to the Union,” Blair would quote him as saying. “But how can I draw my sword against Virginia?”4 Lee later affirmed the conversation, saying, “I declined the offer, stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.”5
Lee’s next call was on General Scott, who was awaiting news of his decision. Scott, a Virginian but a staunch Unionist, would have liked nothing better than for Lee to accept field command of the embryonic army and later to succeed him. Known as “Fuss and Feathers” because of his attention to detail, he was ailing and obese, and wanted the troops in good hands. “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life,” Scott said. “But I feared it would be so.”6
Only after these interviews were over did Lee learn that the Virginia Convention, in closed session, had voted to secede. Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee would follow, while Kentucky and Missouri remained torn. On April 20 he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army. “My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war,” Mary Custis Lee would write, “but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state.” 7 Two days later Governor John Letcher named him commander of the military forces of Virginia, with the rank of major general, entrusting him to ready the state’s militia for battle. This essential but thankless task would temporarily take Lee out of the war’s mainstream. Regardless, he would do his duty. That was the way he had been raised.
* * *
Robert Edward Lee, a scion of the aristocracy, was born in Stratford, Virginia, on January 19, 1807, one of five children of Ann Hill Carter and Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee, a gallant figure of the Revolutionary War and a favorite of George Washington. Henry Lee went on to become a governor of Virginia and a member of Congress, but a weakness for land speculation plagued his private life, and eventually plunged his family into near bankruptcy. Young Robert was only six when his father sailed for the West Indies, hoping to recoup his fortune. The boy never saw him again.
Though the numerous members of the Carter clan were wealthy, her husband’s improvidence forced Ann Carter Lee to raise her own children in straitened circumstances. Money was always a concern. Robert and his siblings would visit or holiday with their many cousins, at their Stratford or Shirley plantations, but home for them was a small, modest house in Alexandria, just outside Washington. There his semi-invalid mother, honoring her husband’s memory but conscious of his failings, imbued in her son the religious beliefs and moral convictions that stayed with him all his life. “Her unquestioning faith as transmitted to her son implanted in him that total acceptance…of working the best he could within the design of God,” a commentator would say. “Whatever action duty assigned him, implicit in the duty was the need to do it the best he could. Nothing he wrote or any recorded word indicated that he ever presumed on any course of action, large or small, which did not assume its accordance with God’s will. If his aim fell outside the divine design, then ‘God’s will be done.’ Without articulating his attitude, it was as unreflectively assumed as breathing.”8
Lee entered West Point in 1825, and during his four years of training compiled a distinguished record, finishing second in his class and never receiving a single demerit. “All his accomplishments…appeared natural to him,” wrote Erasmus D. Keyes of Massachusetts, a fellow cadet who would become a Union general, “and he was free from the anxiety, distrust and awkwardness that attend a sense of inferiority.”9 Soon after his graduation Ann Carter Lee died, and the newly commissioned second lieutenant found himself in the Engineer Corps, building fortifications in Savannah, Georgia. But his leaves were spent back in Virginia, where he began courting Mary Custis, the only child of Mary Fitzhugh and George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington. Though Custis, the owner of a vast estate at Arlington, expressed reservations about Lee’s ability to support his daughter, Mary and Robert were married in July 1831. She would bear him seven children, and continue to live at Arlington for long periods when, during the coming years, he would be assigned to posts outside Virginia.
For Lee, as for all the officers of his generation, the 1846-47 Mexican War was a testing ground. Southerners who fought in the conflict included Jefferson Davis, Pierre Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson, James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Daniel Harvey Hill, Ambrose Powell Hill, Jubal Early and George Pickett. Northerners included George McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, George Meade and Ulysses S. Grant.
Captain Lee’s most important service came in early 1847, when he landed with General Scott at Veracruz, beginning the drive on Mexico City. His aggressiveness, engineering skills and eye for terrain earned him Scott’s high praise, several commendations and the brevet (temporary) rank of colonel. “His talent for topography was peculiar,” said a fellow officer, “and he seemed to receive impressions intuitively, which it cost other men much labor to acquire.”10 From Scott he absorbed the belief that a commander should set overall strategy, then let his generals in the field handle the details. In years to come, this conviction would be sorely tested.
From 1852 to 1855, Lee served as superintendent at West Point, where he saw his eldest son, Custis, graduate first in his class, watched as his nephew Fitzhugh Lee was nearly dismissed for nighttime revelry, and himself became a mentor to a dashing cadet and tireless horseman named James Ewell Brown (“Jeb”) Stuart. His youngest son, Robert, remembered him at the time as a quiet but firm disciplinarian. “I always knew it was impossible to disobey my father,” he wrote. “I felt it in me, I never thought why, but was perfectly sure when he gave an order that it had to be obeyed.”11 Next came a posting to Texas, where he was sent as lieutenant colonel of the elite and newly formed 2nd U.S. Cavalry. There, with his own wife hundreds of miles away in Virginia, he gave some advice on courtship to a young officer named John Bell Hood, who he feared was feeling the loneliness of the frontier even more than he. “Never marry,” he counseled Hood, “unless you can do so into a family that will enable your children to feel proud of both sides of the aisle.”12
When his father-in-law died in 1857, leaving a complicated and messy estate, Lee as his executor was forced to ask the army for a series of protracted leaves. Custis, like Lee’s own father, had incurred too much debt. Though he had lived lavishly he was land poor. Adding to Lee’s sense of déjà vu was his wife’s physical state. Mary Custis Lee had always been in delicate health but now, like his mother had been, was all but bedridden. “I almost dread him seeing my crippled state,” she wrote a friend.13 Month after month he labored on the problems of the Arlington estate—making needed repairs, paying down debt and juggling inheritances—all the while tending his wife. In October 1859 an urgent message from the War Department, brought by Lieutenant Stuart, broke the tedium. Lee was directed to nearby Harpers Ferry, where he took command of troops ordered to put down an antislavery insurrection led by John Brown, the Kansas abolitionist, who had seized an armory building and taken hostages. This he did with minimum bloodshed, capturing Brown and freeing the prisoners.
The next eighteen months passed swiftly. Lee briefly returned to duty in Texas, then answered Scott’s summons to Washington. Now in April 1861 he was 54 years old, a handsome man in superb health, ruddy-faced, his black hair only tinged with gray, his eyes dark and compelling. His neck and torso were muscular, his hips narrow. Seen on horseback, his neck and shoulders made him seem much taller than his five feet, eleven inches. But it was his manner that most impressed those he met. Calm and patient, he was objective in his decisions, without pretense, and invariably considerate of others. Tact was inherent in his nature.
* * *
Nor was Lee self-serving. This was apparent from his first days as commander of the military forces of Virginia, when the state began integrating its troops with those of the Confederacy. Lee, a Virginia major general, might soon be taking orders from Confederate brigadiers, who at that time held the Confederacy’s highest rank. Would this upset him? Recounted Vice President Alexander Stevens, who sounded Lee out on the problem: “He expressed himself as perfectly satisfied, and as being very desirous of having the alliance formed.…He did not wish anything connected with himself individually…to interfere in the slightest degree with the immediate consummation of that measure.”14 That Virginia would be the major battlefield of the war was a given. Washington and Richmond, soon to be the Rebel capital, were barely one hundred miles apart, and the state was the largest, most populous and richest in the Confederacy. It had more military-age whites (some 200,000) than any other Southern state, more slaves (some 500,000—although only one-quarter of the whites were slave owners), more industrial capacity and more railroads. To conquer Virginia was to win the war.
From April through June, Lee applied himself to creating an army. There was some early good news. Except for Fort Monroe at the tip of the Yorktown Peninsula, all Federal installations had been occupied. These included the armory with its small-arms machinery at Harpers Ferry, and the navy yard with its guns and dry docks at Norfolk. Thomas Jackson, whom Lee had not seen since their service in the Mexican War, was sent to Harpers Ferry and later superseded by Joseph Johnston, a West Point classmate of Lee and an old friend. John Bankhead Magruder and Benjamin Huger, two other regulars from the Old Army, took command respectively on the Peninsula and in Norfolk.
Organizing, arming and feeding the Virginia volunteers became an all-consuming task, but Lee’s abilities were equal to the challenge. By June 8, regiments totaling 40,000 men had been integrated into the ranks of the Confederacy. What would come to be known as the Army of Northern Virginia, composed of units from all over the South, would always be one-quarter Virginian. Wrote Walter H. Taylor, Lee’s longtime aide, “Under the direction of General Lee…the Virginia volunteers were in a wonderfully short time…equipped and sent to the front.”15
The front was just south of the Potomac at the Manassas railroad junction. Not to give battle at this point would mean falling back 40 miles to the Rappahannock River, exposing a wide swath of northern Virginia to the enemy. Commanding the troops at Manassas was Pierre Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter.
Meanwhile, Lee had worked himself out of a job. The Virginia army was no more; the Confederate field commands were filled—with Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley and Beauregard on the Manassas line. President Davis, who had moved the capital to Richmond from Montgomery, Alabama, had high regard for Lee’s military talents, but even higher regard for his own. The logical job for Lee would have been general-in-chief, but Davis, a West Pointer and former Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, was his own general-in-chief. At this point he kept Lee at his side as an all-purpose aide, giving him just enough but not too much authority. Explained his preeminent biographer: “Daily Lee’s duties were enlarged, though they were not defined. Jealous as was President Davis of his prerogatives, and instant as was his resentment of all interference, he made the most of Lee’s abilities. Soon Lee was in one sense an acting assistant Secretary of War and in another sense deputy chief of the general staff, to borrow a later military term.…”16
* * *
Jefferson Davis, a man alternately courtly and prickly, from the start of the war was intent on defending the whole South, dispersing his forces rather than concentrating them. Critics contended this was a mistake, and Davis on at least one occasion allowed that this might be so. “I acknowledge the error of my attempt to defend all of the frontier,” he admitted.17 But under the prevailing geographical and political conditions Davis had little choice. Out west in the interior, the Armies of Tennessee and the Trans-Mississippi played a vital role in protecting the Mississippi and keeping Union forces from dividing the Confederacy. Closer to home the governors of the seaboard states, driven by political concerns, adamantly kept substantial numbers of troops in their own jurisdictions. Even Virginia throughout the war retained some of its regiments far from the main lines of battle.
Considering the huge disparity between the North’s resources and the Confederacy’s, Davis managed the war quite well. In 1860 the North’s population totaled some 22 million people, that of the eleven seceding states only 5.5 million whites. The North had 1.3 million industrial workers, the South 110,000. The North produced 97 percent of the nation’s firearms, 94 percent of its cloth and more than 90 percent of its industrial output. Northern rail mileage, totaling some 20,000 miles of track, was more than twice that of the South. Draft animals in the North numbered some 800,000, those in the Confederacy only 300,000. The North’s navy boasted 90 vessels; the South’s was all but nonexistent.
Davis was used to battling the odds. Born in Kentucky on June 3, 1808, a son of Jane Cook and Samuel Davis, he was raised in Mississippi where his hardworking father, a Baptist and a Democrat in a state whose leaders were Episcopalians and Federalists, planted cotton alongside his slaves. Once, when young Jeff balked at going to school, Samuel put him to work in the fields. Two days under the broiling sun made book learning more attractive.
After his father’s death, Davis’s older brother Joseph persuaded him to enter West Point, which he did in 1824, a year before Lee. There he was a likeable cadet but a mediocre student who earned more than his share of demerits. Basically he subscribed to the carefree drinking song at Benny Haven’s, a local tavern: “To our comrades who are fallen, one cup before we go / They poured their life blood freely out pro bono publico / No marble points the stranger to where they rest below / They lie neglected—far away from Benny Haven’s, O!”18
Following graduation Davis began years of service on the frontier—scouting, fighting Indians and honing the skills of self-reliance. Those skills were never more apparent than in 1835 when he determinedly resigned from the army to marry, over her father’s objections, 16-year-old Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary (“Rough and Ready”) Taylor, the colonel of his regiment. Later, in the Mexican War, Taylor would win fame second only to Winfield Scott, and in 1848 he was elected president. The young couple journeyed to Mississippi where Joseph Davis, who had become a wealthy planter, gifted them with an 800-acre plantation. Within months, however, Davis and his bride would be stricken with malarial fever. “Knoxie” would die, in her delirium singing lines from “Fairy Bells,” a song she had learned in childhood. The groom would survive, gaunt and neuralgic, only to bury himself in almost ten years of seclusion, reading deeply in the law and the classics. In the process he became a learned, and perhaps rigid, man.
In 1844 his brother Joseph again influenced Davis’s life, introducing him to Varina Howell, 17, a spirited young woman from Natchez, Mississippi. “I believe he is old,” she wrote her mother, “for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you.…He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper.…” Then she added, “Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat!”19 They married the next year, and Varina would bear him six children. “She is as beautiful as Venus,” enthused Joseph, adding: “As well as good looks, she has a mind that will fit her for any sphere that the man to whom she is married will…reach.” Agreed Davis: “She is beautiful and she has a fine mind.”20
When the Mexican War began, Davis was elected colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, a volunteer regiment. At Buena Vista, serving under his former father-in-law, he and his men saved the day, breaking a desperate Mexican cavalry charge. “My daughter, sir,” Taylor told him, “was a better judge of men than I.”21 Returning home wounded and on crutches, Davis began a long political career that took him, beginning in 1847, to the U.S. Senate, President Pierce’s cabinet and again to the Senate. There despite his neuralgia-racked body and easily ruffled temperament, he assumed the mantle of John C. Calhoun as the leading spokesman for Southern interests. The issue of states’ rights, triggered by the bitter quarrel over slavery, loomed ever larger in his convictions. “We but tread in the paths of our fathers when we proclaim our independence,” he declared in his January 1861 resignation speech, “not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.”22
Within weeks he was named president of the Confederacy. He spoke of his election, said Varina Davis, “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.”23 Regardless, he too would do his duty.
* * *
Joseph Eggleston Johnston, in command at Harpers Ferry since May 15, was the son of circuit judge Peter Johnston, who had served under “Light-Horse Harry” Lee during the Revolutionary War. Born on February 3, 1807, in Abingdon, Virginia, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, Johnston’s respected military career in the Old Army paralleled but never quite equaled Lee’s. His rank in the West Point class of 1829 had been thirteenth (out of forty-six), but Lee’s had been second. His conduct in the Mexican War earned him the brevet rank of major, but Lee’s brought him the brevet rank of colonel. Both men in 1855 had been named lieutenant colonels of cavalry regiments, but Lee in 1861 had made full colonel. Though promoted to quartermaster general in 1860 with the staff rank of brigadier, Johnston held a permanent rank only of lieutenant colonel.
In 1845, he married Lydia McLane, 23, the daughter of a wealthy Maryland businessman who had been secretary of the treasury under President Andrew Jackson, thereby enhancing both his financial security and social status. Though they had no children, Lydia Johnston proved a devoted wife, dedicated to her husband’s career. “If my Joseph is defeated I shall die,” she told Varina Davis shortly before the first battle of Manassas. “Lydia, beware of ambition,” Mrs. Davis replied.24
Johnston was small and slight, with a receding hairline, hollow cheeks and a wispy goatee. Extremely conscious of his reputation, he dreaded taking risks. One contemporary tells of the time Wade Hampton III, perhaps the wealthiest plantation owner in the South, invited Johnston to a hunting party: “He was a capital shot, better than Wade or I, but with Colonel Johnston…the bird flew too high or too low, the dogs were too far or too near. Things never did suit exactly. He was too fussy, too hard to please, too cautious, too much afraid to miss and risk his fine reputation for a crack shot.”25 Hampton and the others shot away, bringing down bird after bird. Johnston never shot at all. Explains one historian: “If he did not fight, at least then he could not lose, and to get him to fight or to make a movement that might prove unpopular, it appeared that first he had to be absolved of responsibility for the consequences. It was a shame, for Johnston possessed as much tactical skill as any general in the Confederacy.”26
With the battle fast approaching and Federal troops already moving into Arlington and Alexandria, this overly prudent soldier was the senior field commander of the Confederacy in Virginia. Soon he would abandon Harpers Ferry, moving his 12,000 men south up the Shenandoah to Winchester. Facing him was a Union army of 18,000 men under General Robert Patterson.
Junior to Johnston but commanding some 20,000 men on the Manassas line since June 3 was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, whose military instincts in sharp contrast to his chief’s verged on the grandiose. If Johnston’s forces were transferred from the Valley to his command, Beauregard wrote Davis, “we could by a bold and rapid movement forward retake Arlington Heights and Alexandria…which would have the effect of recalling all the enemy’s forces…for the protection of Washington.”27 In rejecting the plan, Davis showed considerable restraint. He did not mention the obvious: that the Confederates still lacked the arms, ammunition and transport for such an ambitious assault. Instead he pointed out he had to keep Johnston’s troops where they were, until it became apparent the enemy under Patterson would not be advancing up the Shenandoah to attack Beauregard in the rear. The hero of Fort Sumter, ever ready to push himself forward, had come to believe his newspaper clippings. “My troops are in fine spirits and anxious for a fight,” he would say. “They seem to have the most unbounded confidence in me.”28
Born on May 28, 1818, at Contreras Plantation just south of New Orleans, Beauregard was as proud of his patrician French Creole ancestry as he was fond of citing Napoleon’s campaigns. His face was swarthy and mustachioed, his eyes dark and melancholy with heavily drooping lids. His manner was mild, even gracious, and he usually expressed his vitriol with his pen, writing lengthy reports and letters. Like Davis and Johnston, he could be quick to take offense, slow to admit error. He enjoyed champagne, gala balls and the company of pretty women. His sickly wife, Caroline Deslondes Beauregard, also a member of a prominent Creole family, remained in Louisiana. Commented a Richmond hostess: “Beauregard’s wife is still in New Orleans and he gnashes his teeth. She will not leave a doctor who (only one in the world) understands her case.”29
Beauregard graduated second in the West Point class of 1838, then spent more than two decades supervising U.S. Army engineering projects throughout the South. Named superintendent of West Point in 1860, he was dismissed within five days because of his secessionist views. He resigned his commission once Louisiana left the Union, expecting to be put in charge of the state’s militia, but the post instead went to Braxton Bragg, another career soldier. Rescued from relative obscurity by his shelling of Fort Sumter, Beauregard now found himself in mid-July along a meandering creek named Bull Run, his line stretched out for eight miles, waiting for Union General Irvin McDowell’s attack. His 20,000 men would soon be facing 35,000 Federals. Unless Johnston could reinforce him, the odds would be daunting.
Copyright © 2002 by George Walsh