The Civil War: Battles in Virginia



The war which immediately followed the assault on Fort Sumner was crowded with events of striking importance and interest. The conflict in Virginia was in particular crowded with sanguinary engagements, constituting a drama of imposing interest, whose first act may be considered to end with the battle of Antietam, in September, 1862. The varied scenes preceding the denouement of this act can be given but in rapid outline. The reduction of Fort Sumter was immediately followed by a call from President Lincoln for seventy-five thousand volunteers, who were quickly furnished by the aroused and indignant people of the North. Yet a lack of boldness and decision on the part of the authorities permitted the valuable navy-yard at Norfolk to fall into the hands of the Confederates, caused the destruction of the costly arms-making machinery at Harper's Ferry, and left Washington City in no little danger of capture. The latter peril was averted by the hasty southward movement of troops, but highly valuable material of war fell into the hands of the secessionists, through the seizure of Southern forts and arsenals, some of which had been specially supplied for this purpose by the secession element of the Buchanan cabinet.

The military situation, and the character of the war that followed, were in some respects peculiar. There was actually a double war,-- one confined to the State of Virginia and the country immediately north of it, the other waged for the possession of the Mississippi and the range of States bordering it on the east. Besides these two great fields of campaigning, were the operations west of the Mississippi, of minor importance, and the blockade of the coast, which proved highly useful in isolating the South form foreign countries.

The two capital cities, Washington and Richmond, were the points between which, for four years, raged the war in Virginia, these cities being assailed and defended with a vigor and fury that went far to exhaust the resources of the warring sections of the country. In the West the line of battle was gradually pushed southward from the Ohio, through the States of Kentucky and Tennessee, till the Gulf States were finally reached. On the Mississippi it went southward more rapidly, while a like movement was pushed northward along that river, until the two invading armies met, and the great artery of the West became again a river of the United States,. Only after this achievement did the two fields of war begin to combine into one, the Western army marching into the Atlantic States and pushing north to the aid of Grant in that final struggle which was draining the last life-drops of vitality from the veins of the exhausted Confederacy.

The operations of the armies must therefore be considered separately. In the East hostilities first broke out definitely in West Virginia. This new State, which had clung to the Union, became the seat of a struggle in which McClellan and Rosecrans gained an early triumph. At the battle of Rich Mountain (July 11, 1861), Garnet, the Confederate general, was killed, and his troops routed. General Patterson had meanwhile taken possession of Harper's Ferry, which was evacuated by General Johnson, and General Butler, stationed at Fortress Monroe, had skirmished with the enemy at Big Bethel.

The war fairly began in later July, when General McDowell, with twenty-eight thousand men, advanced against General Beauregard, who was strongly posted behind the small stream of Bull Run, south of Washington. In the severe battle that ensured both armies were under the disadvantage of being composed of untried and undisciplined men. Victory at first inclined strongly towards McDowell, but Beauregard, with great skills, maintained his position until joined by Johnston's army from the Shenandoah Valley. Patterson, who was expected from the same quarter, failed to appear, and the Federal army, overwhelmed by these fresh troops, was forced to retreat with a haste that soon became precipitate. They were not pursued, however.

McClettan was now recalled from West Virginia, and placed in command of the Army of the Potomac, while Rosecrans was left to confront General Lee, who had been placed in command of the West Virginia Confederate forces. No further events of particular importance occurred in that quarter, while in Eastern Virginia comparative quiet reigned during the remainder of 1861, McClellan being busily engaged in drilling and disciplining his army. IN March, 1862, he moved his whole force to the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, and began an advance upon Richmond, pursuing General Johnston, who had hastily evacuated Yorktown and retreated, his rear being struck and defeated at Williamsburg. The first battle of importance took place on May 31, on which day Johnston suddenly assailed a portion o the Union army that had crossed the Chickahominy. Nothing but the hasty pushing forward of reinforcements prevented a serious disaster. Johnston was wounded in this engagement, and was succeeded by Robert E. Lee, who on the 1st of June was made commander-in-chief of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, events of importance were occurring in the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson made that memorable march which gave him so sudden and brilliant a reputation. Striking rapidly north, he defeated Banks, and drove him, with severe loss, beyond the Potomac, and then drew backs so rapidly as to slip unharmed between the columns of McDowell and Fremont, who were advancing across the mountains from the east and the west, hoping to catch their alert antagonist in a trap.

The removal of McDowell to the Valley gave General Lee an opportunity of which he took instant advantage. McClellan's line of communication with York River had been left exposed, and the new Confederate commander, calling Jackson to his aid from the Valley, fell upon the Union army with an impetuosity which it proved unable to withstand. Thus began that remarkable series of battles which for seven days kept the cannon of the contending armies in unceasing roar.

An assault was made on Fitz-John Porter's post at Mechanicsville on June 26. He retired to his works on Beaver Dam Creeks, where he was assailed on the 27th. Finding his lines flanked by Jackson's corps, he withdrew to a strong line of intrenchments at Gaines's Mills. Here he was exposed to a series of impetuous charges, in which the Confederates, after being several times repulsed, succeeded in gaining the crest of the ridge and breaking the Union lines. A retreat followed that was almost a panic, and only the approach of night put a stop to the slaughter which had decimated Porter's broken ranks.

During the next day a general retreat of the Union columns began, McClellan cutting loose from his base on the York, and moving back towards the James River. The victorious Confederates followed, and several severe battles occurred during the following days. The Union rear-guard, with great courage, checked the pursuit at successive points, and on the 1st of July a pitched battle took place at Malvern Hill, in which the whole forces of both armies were engaged, and in which the assault of the Confederates on the Union intrenchments was repulsed with great loss. It is asserted by many historians that Lee's army was almost in a panic, and that a Union advance in force at that moment must have routed them ,and probably have placed Richmond in the hands of the Union army. Be that as it may, McClellan persisted in his plan of retreat. During the night Malvern Hill was deserted, ad by nightfall of the next day the Union army was safely gathered at Harrison's Landing, under the protection of the gunboats on the James River. This position was immediately fortified, and Lee made no effort to assail it. The loss on both sides had been enormous, though that of the Unionists had been considerably the greater, while the main object of their campaign, the capture of Richmond, was completely frustrated.

Meanwhile, the three armies of Fremont, Banks, and McDowell had been massed into one, and placed under the command of General Pope, who had gained prominence by successes in the West. The design was to aid McClellan, but Lee's success rendered new plans necessary, and Pope's army was held between Richmond and Washington, as a cover to the latter city.

A covering force had become essential, for Lee soon began a series of bold movements which placed the seat of government in great jeopardy. In August he advanced towards the Rapidan, a menace which so disconcerted the Federal authorities that McClellan was hastily recalled from the James, and ordered to transport his army with all haste to Washington. The confederate force under Jackson was now sent on a rapid flanking march through Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains. Jackson reached the rear of Pope's army at Manassas Junction, at which point an immense quantity of army stores was captured, such as could not be carried off being destroyed.

Pope, finding that Jackson was in his rear, and separated from the remainder of Lee's army, marched rapidly upon him, hoping to destroy him before he could effect a junction with Longstreet. But this movement seems to have been ill managed. Thoroughfare gap, Through which along Longstreet could come to Jackson's aid, was weakly held, and a junction between the two divisions of Lee's army was suffered to be made almost without opposition. The failure to overwhelm Jackson was ascribed by Pope to disobedience of orders on the part of Fitz-John Porter, and this general was subsequently court-martialled and dismissed the service, his explanation of the circumstances not being accepted as satisfactory.

The engagement with Jackson occurred on August 29. On the succeeding day the battle was renewed, Pope being now confronted by the whole of Lee's army. The conflict ended in a disastrous repulse of the Union army, it being driven beyond Bull Run, with serious loss. On the 31st, Pope fell back to Centreville, a point more immediately covering Washington. A minor conflict took place on the evening of that day, near Chantilly, in which Generals Kearney and Stevens were killed. Pope now resigned his command, having lost during the campaign about thirty thousand men, thirty guns, twenty thousand small-arms, and vast quantities of supplies and munitions. Lee's loss numbered about fifteen thousand men.





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