Un Vaincu/Chapter 9


It was on the 31st of May, 1862 that the Confederate Army, commanded by General Johnson was able to set forth and march towards the firing line. It′s organization was far from being completed. The very morning of the first encounter, General Lee was still dispatching to the army the company of cavalry which was going to prove itself very useful. It numbered 300 men, and so great was the lack of armaments that it had been necessary to give them rifles of seven different models.

Stopped several times by deluging rains that had turned the region into an immense swamp, General McClellan was arriving too late to surprise Richmond.

However incomplete it was, Johnson′s army was, nevertheless, an obstacle with which one had to reckon. The first clash took place at Fair Oaks.[1] During the whole day, the efforts and the skill of McClellan failed against the steadiness of the Southerners. Near the evening, General Johnson was seriously wounded by a shell burst. He had to be taken away from the battlefield ; and his disappearance at the most crucial time of the action caused a disorder, then a movement of retreat on the left. There was not a minute to lose. General Lee left his post with the President and took the command of the army.

That responsibility was a serious thing to accept under such circumstances. The enemy guns were only five miles from Richmond, and the assailants were already boasting, as if the capital of rebellion were already conquered. Seven thousand Confederates littered the battlefield. Another defeat, and all would be lost.

The Southerners were spared this new defeat by the energy of their commandant. McClellan did not succeed in gaining an inch of land. Days passed without either army taking the risk of a new battle which, for either one of them, could turn into a disascer. However, General Lee had serious reasons for wanting to precipitate the outcome of the situation. Munitions were going to lack -- he would soon have to give up containing the enemy.

On June 12th, he sent fifteen hundred horsemen, under command of General Stewart, on a raid. In 10 days of riding constantly through enemy territory, the column circumvented the Northern army ; destroyed roads, bridges, telegraph poles, and brought back a good number of prisoners. It returned to camp on June 22nd.

Inspired by the information he got from Stewart, Lee recalled, secretly, Johnson′s corps ; which, 90 miles away, was threatening the City of Washington. Then, pushing all his forces ahead, he gave, on the 26th, the signal of a battle that the unyielding spirit of both sides was to prolong during seven horrible days.[2]

General Jackson, whom we have just mentioned for the first time, was the hero of Bull Run -- the first important victory of the South. Former pupil at West Point, then artillery officer during the Mexican campaign, finally professer of mathematics, Jackson had made himself known, much more by his strange manifestations of an ardent and sincere piety than by any remarkable military gift. His real value had been revealed at Bull Run. He had deserved there, by his unshakable firmness, the nickname of ‘Stonewall,’ by which we will often call him. When General Lee called on him, he was successfully withholding, with 20 thousand men, two Federal armies camped in front of Washington.

The 26th of June, as we have said, Lee decided to take the offensive, and did it with vigor. The Federals were compelled to retreat ; but if they gave up the battlefield, they kept the positions they had fortified beforehand as a shield in case of retreat.

The following day -- the 27th -- action resumed with daylight. It was a Brigade of young recruits who had the perilous honor of attacking the entrenchments of the Federals.

Boissonnas, Un Vaincu, English, 1875 (page 79 crop).jpg


Here we see the Fifth New Hampshire Infantry, reinforced by details from the Sixty-fourth New York and from the Irish brigade, at work in the swamp strengthening the upper bridge across the Chickahominy so as to enable Sumner′s troops to cross. The bridge gad been completed on the night of May 29, 1862, and Colonel Cross, of the Fifth New Hampshire, was the first man to ride over it. The heavy rains on the night of May 30th had so loosened the supports that when Sumner led his troops across on the afternoon of May 31st only the weight of the cautiously marching column kept the logs in place. Sumner named it the Grapevine Bridge because of its tortuous course. It enabled his troops to turn the tide at Fair Oaks and ward off Federal defeat on the first day. After they had crossed much of the Grapevine Bridge was submerged by the rising flood of the Chickahominy.

It behaved decently under their powerful artillery, but it was a rough ordeal for such inexperienced soldiers ; and General Lee saw the necessity of sustaining them. A brook was running between the two armies. Division after Division crossed it to climb the fortified slopes. General Lee was pressing their march ; and yet, counting what he had left, he was evaluating the time when all his reserves would be engaged in the fight.

Southern historians like to represent Lee on this beautiful, fine day of June ; firm on his gray horse, Traveler -- the horse that was to remain faithful in all his campaigns -- wearing a simple uniform without any decorations, observing, with calm, the course of the action. One would think they wanted to honor, from its first manifestation, that military example whose glory never ceased growing for three years and possessed the rare privilege of remaining pure and undaunted amidst the hatreds and rancors of a civil war.

In spite of his 54 years, General Lee was still the intrepid horseman of Arlington -- the heroic walker of Pedrigale. He had lost nothing yet of his youth′s elastic vigor. His tall size, the regularity of his features, the penetrating but kind expression of his dark eyes, his serious but always kindly manners, commanded respect at first sight. Here was, without doubt, the Chief one must obey. But what opened all hearts to him was the charm -- so difficult to define, even by chose who have felt it -- that natures really



The austere, determined features of the victor of Chancellorsville, just as they appeared two weeks before the tragic shot that cost the Confederacy its greatest Lieutenant-General

sincere and devoted -- natures outstandingly great -- carry within themselves. He added to this the youthful expression that habitual benevolent and pure thoughts preserve in a face, in spite of years. Man of duty, passionate citizen, convinced Christian; Robert Lee ignored all the unhealthy ambitions -- even that of personal glory. His army, for him, represented his share of duty in the torn-apart fatherland. He was absorbed by ict and was to prove himself, in all circumstances, as careful of its honor as of its comfort. His soldiers felt it and trusted him. They knew they were in good hands -- in hands that were affectionate, far-sighted, trustworthy. They knew that a noble intelligence was working for their good and their glory; that their General was theirs -- undoubtedly theirs -- with all his thoughts, all his heart, all his ardor, and -- with its significance in the army of a Christian people all his virile prayers of a believer.

Motionless, Lee, while he was urging his troops along, was waiting with a secret anxiety. He was waiting for Jackson, and Jackson was not arriving. The last Division had just entered into combat, when, at last, a frenzied cry rises and travels through all the ranks "Jackson, Stonewall Jackson!" and the hero of Bull Run comes galloping towards his Chief.

"The Almighty had made both these human beings truly great; to only one of them had He given the additional grace of looking great." Jackson, meager, bent over a skinny horse Page:Boissonnas, Un Vaincu, English, 1875.djvu/84 he hardly knew how to ride, haggard -- or distracted -- made with General Lee the most striking contrast; but he also had proved himself, and his name was a power by itself.

As his Battalions gather wich Lee's forces, a new ardor seizes the Confederates . They f ight, gain foot -by- foot, chumb- by-thumb, the land thac the Federals are defendi~g bravely until six o'clock . At that time , co make the best of the l ast hours of daylight, Lee masses a ll his f orces in front of the indented hills, the surnrnits of which are still in the hands of the adversaries, and l aunches the supreme assault. This tirne, the Norchern soldiers give in, break off , ar:d considering that the baccle is lost, shoulder their rifles and deliberately abandon the field[3].

In vain, their Generals rushed to face them and bring thern back to the firing line. The ordeal had been too great for those improvised soldiers. They persist to turn their backs on their enerny. Three Frenchmen, corne from Europe in the noble purpose o f helping to liberate the Blacks, were serving in McClellan's army. One of them has kept for us the moving description of Page:Boissonnas, Un Vaincu, English, 1875.djvu/86 Page:Boissonnas, Un Vaincu, English, 1875.djvu/87

  1. Fair Oaks is the name adopted by the North. The South called it Seven Pines.
  2. Those battles were : Battle of Cold Harbor, White Oak Swamp, Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Savage Station, James River, and Melbourne Hill.
  3. The Prince du Joinville writes in Campagne du Potomac, "There is no panic. People are not running with a scare or fright, but deaf to all cause, the men leave deliberately, the rifle on their shoulder, like people who are fed up and no longer believe in success."