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CHEAT MOUNTAINThe Army of Northwest Virginia
By Art Morse
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Art Morse
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRichmond, Virginia July 27, 1861
The heady feelings of exaltation, the hopes for a quick end to the war, were fading from the minds of the residents of Richmond. The hospitals were full, though the last ambulance wagons arriving with the wounded from Manassas were just now approaching the outskirts of the city. Lincoln's call for an entire new army had been ridiculed in Southern newspapers, but more sober men had come to conclude the North would not let the South leave the Union without paying a bitter price.
One such man rode slowly through the crowded streets, occasionally lifting his hat or nodding; but he was primarily focused on his own military responsibilities, while a second, more physical part of his mind registered every motion of his glorious-looking but somewhat skittish horse. General Robert E. Lee was not pleased, either with the latest news from the western part of Virginia or with the conduct of his latest acquisition. The news of the death of General Garnett and the virtual rout of his troops in the western counties had been a shock to the capital and even more of a blow to Lee. Garnett had been Lee's adjutant during Virginia's mobilization, and they had formed a close friendship during those weeks of intense activity. In addition, it was Lee who had recommended both Garnett's promotion to brigadier and his assignment to the threatened area.
The horse was handsome, tall, and powerfully built, with a rich black color. The gelding had been very impressive when he had ridden it on the farm where it had been raised; but in the city, it was showing an increasing and pervasive nervousness. There was no use for such a horse on the battlefield, Lee reluctantly concluded. He resolved to sell it as soon as possible and ride his faithful roan until a better horse should present itself. It was with some chagrin that Lee reached this decision, for he was a fine horseman, competing against his sons at jumping as recently as his fiftieth birthday. It irked him that his judgment of this horse's potential was so poor.
"Why, General, are you so preoccupied with the war that you have no greeting for us?" Lee awoke from his deep musings to see Martha Stanard and a companion calling out to him from a fine carriage.
"My dear, Mrs. Stanard," said Lee, bowing gracefully, "it was not the war but my own inadequate assessment of this horse that caused me to be so inattentive. I hope you and your companion are enjoying this lovely day."
"Indeed we were, until we found ourselves ignored by such a handsome officer," Martha replied playfully. "Allow me to introduce Mrs. Mary Chestnut, General Lee. Perhaps you have met her husband, James, who represents South Carolina in our Congress."
"My pleasure, Mrs. Chestnut. I have the acquaintance of your husband, though I know him better in his role as President Davis's confidential aide," responded Lee with another slight bow.
"General, he is as beautiful a horse as I have ever seen. Surely you cannot be serious?" asked Mary Chestnut, in a coy voice.
"I thank you for your kind opinion, ma'am, no less so than because it echoes my own when I first chanced upon him, but I am beginning to question whether he has the temperament for battle," replied Lee, with a small smile.
"Is there to be another battle soon, General? Are the Yankees so anxious to lose again to our gallant Southern men," continued Martha, with a look of concern behind her bantering tone.
"I hope not, my dear ladies, but there is always that danger in a war," Lee replied, in a more somber tone.
"A danger you no doubt relish, General. For how else can ambition be served?"
"I must decline any thought of being ambitious, Mrs. Standard. My tastes are exceedingly simple. A Virginia farm with no end of cream and fresh butter would suit me very well ... and fried chicken. Perhaps I am ambitious in that respect, for I would desire unlimited amounts of fried chicken," remonstrated Lee. "And now I fear I must deprive myself of your delightful company, ladies, for I am required to attend on our president," continued Lee, with another small bow and a slight lift of his hat as he gave his horse a touch of knee and rode on.
"Who is that?" cried Mary eagerly, as soon as Lee was out of hearing, for she had missed the name in the first introductions. "I have never seen so handsome a soldier riding a horse?"
"You truly do not know? Why, that is Robert E. Lee, son of Light Horse Harry Lee, the first man in Virginia ..." raising her voice as she continued with her salutations.
Lee walked up the wide stone steps of the administration building briskly and turned into the corridor that led to President Davis's office. There was no one at the desk in the outer office, and he slowed as he moved to the double doors that led to the inner office. He knocked quietly and heard a voice from within. He turned the ornate bronze door handles and entered the room, seeing Davis at his desk surrounded by papers.
"Ah, General Lee, I am very glad to see you. Please sit down," Davis said, pushing the pile of papers in front of him to the side of the large desk. Lee sat in his usual chair and returned the greeting.
"General, I asked you here to give me the benefit of your thoughts about this unpleasant situation in the mountains of Virginia. I have been reviewing the correspondence from our generals out there, and I must say it does not encourage any feelings of confidence. No, sir, it does not!" Davis's voice, which had started out quietly, rose in volume and pitch as he came to the final sentence. He punctuated his displeasure by slapping the pile of papers he had picked up back down on his desk.
Lee hesitated for a moment. Were there any new letters from the West that he hadn't read? He quickly decided not; all messages came through his office first. Although he had a deep respect for the man's abilities and honored him for his devotion to principle, dealing with the president required all the tact he could muster at times, so he decided to simply agree for the moment. He would wait for Davis to come to the point he was working toward before committing himself.
"Yes, sir, it is indeed a perilous situation," he agreed politely.
"General Floyd apparently does not wish to coordinate his forces with General Wise according to the latter, while Floyd insists that Wise is incompetent in his dispositions. General Loring seems to have no interest in moving forward or in involving General H. Jackson in his plans. Meanwhile, the federal army occupies that corner of the state and encourages insurrection against the state of Virginia," exclaimed Davis. "I have it on reliable authority that the federal Congress is planning on annexing the entire area and creating a new union state out of it. That would be a disaster for the confidence of the citizens of the Confederation to say nothing of the people of Virginia."
"I must confess that you make a valid assessment of the difficulties, sir. I can only add that weather, roads, and terrain are also unfavorable to a coordinated command." Lee did not want to make any comments about the personalities and relationships between the officers in command. That had never been his way, but he was well aware of the problems. When he was in charge of the mobilization of Virginia, he had been dismayed when Floyd had been given permission to organize his own brigade. He had soon begun to treat it as though it were his own personal army. Floyd's presumed prerogatives had interfered greatly with Lee's own efforts to raise forces in the area.
The fact that Floyd and Wise were both former governors of Virginia added to their rivalry. Since Floyd was also the previous secretary of war, he had taken to assuming his opinions were dogma. The only area in which the two generals agreed was in the righteousness of secession. They were both rabid secessionists, politics that Lee found distasteful in the extreme. He had hoped since leaving Texas that Virginia would be able to mediate the conflict between the Confederacy and the Union, but his hopes had been dashed by Lincoln's demand for troops.
Lee had sent Loring to the mountains a few weeks before with fresh troops. He had hoped for decisive action from that frontier soldier. He had been disappointed when Loring promptly demanded further troops and supplies before he could act. The Jackson in question was not the famous "Stonewall" but rather Henry Jackson, a former diplomat, who Lee knew to be an inexperienced officer, although willing and eager to cooperate. Jackson had personally appealed to Lee to come to the theater more than once.
"General Lee, I can ill afford to lose you for even a brief time, but I think it might be useful if you were to go to this area and give these gentlemen the benefit of your advice. I would be dismayed to report to our Congress that we lost the entire western corner of the state without taking such action as we could," continued Davis.
Lee hesitated before replying. What was the meaning of the president's words? Was he to simply make a tour of the area and give "advice," or was he to take "command"? It was clear that the president did not wish this to be a permanent assignment, but did he understand how difficult it would be to give advice, without any real authority except his seniority, to such proud and independent commanders? No, he could be truthful in his own mind at least; headstrong was the real word he had in mind.
Davis became aware of his hesitation. "General Lee, please speak freely. You know the high regard I have for you. If there is something that concerns you, please share your thoughts with me."
"I'm sorry, President Davis. I did not mean to hesitate. Of course, I will be glad to perform whatever services you and our cause may require of me," Lee replied quickly, disingenuously, he thought to himself, and then continued.
"If I may speak as frankly and as confidentially as you ask, then I would suggest that the generals on the scene might resent such advice, coming as it does from a senior officer who brings nothing to the field but himself. But please do not misunderstand me, sir, I am perfectly willing to make my best attempts to do as you recommend," he continued, with perfect sincerity.
Davis rested his thin head on his right hand and replied, "General Lee, there is never a doubt in my mind as to your loyalty to me or our cause, but to be honest, I have learned too well in the last few months that many of our gallant officers seem as preoccupied with their pride and rank as they are with the enemy. Indeed, more so, in some cases, as you are well aware, and I am not referring simply to this situation in the mountains." Lee nodded, well aware of the president's frustration with Beuregard's habit of open letters to the press and J. Johnston's obsession with seniority and independence.
"Fortunately, you are above such pettiness as you have already shown. If I were to place you in command of the Army of Northwest Virginia, it must be understood that this would be temporary, for I repeat, I need you here and have other plans for your talents in the near future," he continued.
"Certainly, sir," agreed Lee.
"And as you are well aware, General Lee," Davis continued, nodding acceptance to Lee's agreement, "there are precious few resources that I can spare to you to augment your command."
Lee felt a warm glow begin to rise within him; he had demurred with the president without arousing his ire. The word "command" seized him with a new enthusiasm, regardless of the great difficulties that he knew he would face in the coming months.
"Yes, sir," Lee replied. Quickly, he reflected on the forces available already in the mountains and what would be his greatest need. A loyal commander in support was his instant conclusion.
"I think that the situation in central Virginia will be stable for the rest of the year, sir. Those people are busy regrouping, and I do not believe General McClellan will be willing to commit to another movement in force until he rebuilds his army to his own satisfaction. May I borrow Colonel Stuart and his experienced cavalry regiment from Harper's Ferry?" Lee paused and then with a small smile continued, "I will endeavor to return them to you with even more experience."
"Stuart can be spared, I believe," Davis replied. "Is that all you would require?" Davis was somewhat surprised at the modest request, most of the dispatches he read from his generals promised action, if only major reinforcements were sent.
"Yes, sir, at least for now. More troops mean more supplies, supplies that I'm not sure the roads can support at this time."
"Very well, General Lee," replied Davis. "But we must be prompt. I would prefer you to immediately join your new command. I will send orders to General Johnston transferring Stuart and his regiment to your command. How quickly can you start?"
"Thank you, sir," responded Lee, with none of the diffidence that marked his earlier remarks. "I shall gather my staff immediately and leave on tomorrow's earliest train."
"Godspeed, General! Keep me informed. I will send written orders to you this afternoon," said Davis, as he stood to shake Lee's hand.
Lee shook the president's hand, gave a slight bow, and then took his leave.
"Captain Taylor," called out Lee as he briskly entered his office on the third floor of the mechanic's building.
"Yes, sir, General," replied Taylor, as he came to his feet behind the small desk where he was working.
"Do you know where Colonel Washington is at this moment, Captain?"
"Yes, sir, he was at the War Department this morning, and I expect him back momentarily," replied the young and eager officer, who had been with Lee for the last two months.
"Well, as soon as he returns, please inform him that he is now chief of staff for the commanding general of the Army of Northwest Virginia," said Lee, smiling at the grandeur of the statement.
"Yes, sir," replied Taylor, with a look of bewilderment on his face. He clearly wanted to ask a host of questions and struggled with himself not to do so.
Lee took pity on his young aide, whom he was quite fond of, and continued. "You are now his senior aide. So please pack up all recent correspondence and any maps we have of the western part of the state and ready your self for a journey."
"Yes, sir!" Taylor replied. Enthusiasm almost radiated from his body.
"Walter, you must arrange for the three of us, and Meredith, Perry, and our horses, to be on the first possible train to Staunton tomorrow morning. Make sure that Meredith packs my tin mess kit. We must travel fast and light for I wish to be there by tomorrow evening. Also, send a telegraph to Colonel Stuart and ask him to join us in Monterey as soon as it is convenient for him."
"Yes, sir, General Lee! May I begin right away?"
"Right away, Captain," replied Lee. "And I would be honored if you and Colonel Washington would join me for dinner at the Spotswood House this evening. It may well be the last good meal we will have for quite a while!"
Colonel James Stuart reported to General J. Johnston's headquarters within minutes of being summoned. He saw General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the anteroom, studying a map. They had taken to one another from the start. Stuart was the only officer in the army with the ability to penetrate Jackson's outer shell and reach the private person within, a man with a good sense of humor who could even be playful within in his own home and away from duty.
"General Jackson, I have been summoned to the headmaster. Do you know the reason?"
Jackson coughed. He did not approve of flippancy and personified the Old Testament when it came to war, but he had a soft spot for Stuart. In him, he found someone of his own mind, eager to take the war to the enemy and a devout Christian.
Jackson was chaffing at Richmond's restrictions on his own actions. He took it as a personal affront that the B&O Railroad's trains, carrying essential federal supplies and reinforcements, were allowed to pass unmolested. There was a trestle bridge a few miles north of Harper's Ferry he wished, wanted, raged to burn. Jackson thought it utter nonsense to allow the railroad immunity; but Davis, who did not wish to offend Maryland, had repeatedly overruled his entreaties. As though Maryland might still join the Confederacy, with every pro-Southern legislator jailed indefinitely by Lincoln's henchman Pinkerton, he thought scornfully.
"No, Colonel Stuart, I do not. But if you are given any opportunity to press this war, I hope you take full advantage of it."
"That I shall, General Jackson. That I shall!" Further conversation was rendered impossible by his summons to General Johnston's office.
"Colonel Stuart, I have received orders to detach you from this command. You are to report to General Lee, who has assumed command of the Army of Northwest Virginia." Johnston was clearly not happy. Stuart diplomatically endeavored to conceal his delight. He could think of nothing better than to be reunited with his mentor of so many years. "Here are your orders as well as a telegram from General Lee."
Excerpted from CHEAT MOUNTAIN by Art Morse Copyright © 2012 by Art Morse. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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