Chapter XV. Lee in the Saddle

While Grant was earning a reputation as a fighting general in the West, Lee had been at a desk in Richmond attending to his duties as chief military adviser to the Confederate President, which prevented him from taking active part in any operations in the field. As a matter of fact, however, there had been no important engagements in the East, for "On to Richmond!" had become the war cry of the North, and all the energies of the Federal government had been centered on preparations for the capture of the Southern capital. Indeed, if Richmond had been the treasure house and last refuge of the Confederacy, no greater efforts could have been made to secure it, although it was by no means essential to either the North or the South and the war would have continued no matter which flag floated above its roofs. Nevertheless, the idea of marching into the enemy's capital appealed to the popular imagination and this undoubtedly dictated much of the early strategy of the war.

At all events, while the opening moves in the campaign for the possession of the Mississippi were being made, a vast army was being equipped near Washington for the express purpose of capturing Richmond. The preparation of this force had been entrusted to General George B. McClellan whose ability in organizing, drilling and disciplining the troops had made him a popular hero and given him such a reputation as a military genius that he was universally hailed as "the young Napoleon." He had, indeed, created the most thoroughly equipped army ever seen in America, and when he advanced toward Virginia in April, 1862, at the head of over 100,000 men the supporters of the Union believed that the doom of the Confederacy was already sealed.

From this office in Richmond Lee watched these formidable preparations for invading the South with no little apprehension. He knew that the Confederates had only about 50,000 available troops with which to oppose McClellan's great army and had the Union commander been aware of this he might have moved straight against the city and swept its defenders from his path. But McClellan always believed that he was outnumbered and on this occasion he wildly exaggerated his opponents' strength. In fact, he crept forward so cautiously that the Confederates, who had almost resigned themselves to losing the city, hastened to bring up reenforcements and erect defensive works of a really formidable character. The best that was hoped for, however, was to delay the Union army. To defeat it, or even to check its advance, seemed impossible, and doubtless it would have proved so had it not been for the brilliant exploits of the man who was destined to become Lee's "right hand."

This man was General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who had earned the nickname of "Stonewall" at Bull Run and was at that time in command of about 15,000 men guarding the fertile Shenandoah Valley, the "granary of Virginia." Opposing this comparatively small army were several strong Union forces which were considered amply sufficient to capture or destroy it, and McClellan proceeded southward, with no misgivings concerning Jackson. But the wily Confederate had no intention of remaining idle and McClellan's back was scarcely turned before he attacked and utterly routed his nearest opponents. A second, third and even a fourth army was launched against him, but he twisted, turned and doubled on his tracks with bewildering rapidity, cleverly luring his opponents apart; and then, falling on each in turn with overwhelming numbers, hurled them from his path with astonishing ease and suddenly appeared before Washington threatening its capture.

Astounded and alarmed at this unexpected peril, the Federal authorities instantly ordered McDowell's corps of 40,000 men, which was on the point of joining McClellan, to remain and defend the capital. This was a serious blow to McClellan who had counted upon using these troops, though even without them he greatly outnumbered the Confederates. But the idea that he was opposed by an overwhelming force had taken such a firm hold on his mind that he was almost afraid to move, and while he was timidly feeling his way General Joseph Johnston, commanding the defenses at Richmond, attacked his advance corps at Seven Pines, May 31, 1862. A fierce contest followed, during which Johnston was severely wounded, and Jefferson Davis, who was on the field, promptly summoned General Lee to the command.

It was a serious situation which confronted Lee when he was thus suddenly recalled to active duty, for McClellan's army outnumbered his by at least 40,000 men and it was within six miles of Richmond, from the roofs of whose houses the glow of the Union campfires was plainly visible. Nevertheless, he determined to put on a bold front and attack his opponent at his weakest point. But how to discover this was a difficult problem and the situation did not admit of a moment's delay. Under ordinary circumstances the information might have been secured through spies, but there was no time for this and confronted by the necessity for immediate action, Lee thought of "Jeb" Stuart, his son's classmate at West Point, who had acted as aide in the capture of John Brown.

Stuart was only twenty-nine years old but he had already made a name for himself as a general of cavalry, and Lee knew him well enough to feel confident that, if there was any one in the army who could procure the needed information, he was the man. He, accordingly, ordered him to take 1,200 troopers and a few field guns and ride straight at the right flank of the Union army until he got near enough to learn how McClellan's forces were posted at that point.