April 10, 1865: Lee’s Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia

Starving army,
Who, after your best was spent and your Spring lay dead,

Yet held the intolerable lines of Petersburg
With deadly courage.
                    You too are a legend now
And the legend has made your fame and has dimmed that fame,
–The victor strikes and the beaten man goes down
But the years pass and the legend covers them both,
The beaten cause turns into the magic cause,
The victor has his victory for his pains–
So with you–and the legend has made a stainless host
Out of the dusty columns of footsore men
Who found life sweet and didn’t want to be killed,
Grumbled at officers, grumbled at Governments.
That stainless host you were not.  You had your cowards,
Your bullies, your fakers, your sneaks, your savages.
You got tired of marching.  You cursed the cold and the rain.
You cursed the war and the food–and went on till the end.
And yet, there was something in you that matched your fable.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

It was fitting that one of the great armies of American history would go out of that history with a salute from its commander, Robert E. Lee.

Against high odds Lee and his army had come close to creating a new nation.  Always outnumbered, with troops often dressed in rags, ill-fed, ill-supplied, he led his men to magnificent victories in the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  Fighting another great general, Grant, he achieved a stalemate in 1864 against an army that had more than a two-to-one advantage, and prolonged the life of his country by almost a year.  A fighting general with a propensity for taking huge risks, he was also a humane man with unfailing courtesy for both friend and foe.  In this final order he told the men who loved him, how much he loved them: (more…)

Published in: on April 10, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on April 10, 1865: Lee’s Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia  
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The Army of Northern Virginia

Furling the Flag

Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground,
Still for the most part, living close to the ground
As the roots of the cow-pea, the roots of the jessamine,
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion-chamber
Of the half-born new age of engines and metal hands.
The fighters who fought for themselves in the old clan-fashion.
Army of planters’ sons and rusty poor-whites,
Where one man came to war with a haircloth trunk
Full of fine shirts and a body-servant to mend them,
And another came with a rifle used at King’s Mountain
And nothing else but his pants and his sun-cracked hands,
Aristo-democracy armed with a forlorn hope,
Where a scholar turned the leaves of an Arabic grammar
By the campfire-glow, and a drawling mountaineer
Told dirty stories old as the bawdy world,
Where one of Lee’s sons worked a gun with the Rockbridge Battery
And two were cavalry generals. (more…)

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 5:32 am  Comments (2)  
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January 20, 1863: Mud March

Mud March Painting

 

Probably the nadir of the Union war effort was reached by the Mud March of the Army of the Potomac which began 150 years ago on January 20, 1863.  Desperate to redeem himself after the bloody fiasco at Fredericksburg the commander of the Potomac, General Ambrose Burnside, ordered an unusal winter offensive, planning to cross over the Rappahannock at Banks ford, .

The weather was unseasonably mild on the 20th.  On the evening of the 20th-21st the rains began and did not stop.  Burnside quick began throwing pontoons over the river, but as the landscape dissolved into a sea of mud, the progress of the Army slowed.  Lee had ample time as a result to station the Army of Northern Virginia across from Burnside on the southern banks of the  Rappahannock.  Other than sharpshooter fire, Lee made no effort to stop Burnside from crossing, perhaps thinking that fighting Burnside with a swollen Rappahannock in the rear of the Army of the Potomac gave an excellent prospect of destroying the Union force. (more…)

Prussian Reb

 

 A traveler in East Prussia in 1890 would have been astonished to see a Confederate battle flag flying from the battlements of the castle at Geisenbrugge.  The lord of the manor, Johann August Heinrich Heros von Borcke, known to his familiars in America as Heros, was a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Born in 1835, von Borcke grew to be a giant of a man for his time period, standing as tall as Lincoln at six feet, four inches and weighing 240 pounds.  A scion of the Junker class of land holders, in 1861 he was a  lieutenant in the Second Brandenburg Dragoons.  Inspired by accounts of the Southern fight for independence, and no doubt a bit bored with peace time soldiering, he obtained a release from his duties, and made his way to Charleston, South Carolina in May of 1862.  The fact that he knew almost no English did not deter him.  He brought with him a huge Solingen straight sword which he would use with deadly effect in some of the cavalry engagements of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Making his way to Richmond, von Borcke obtained a commission as a Captain in the Provisional Confederate Army, and was assigned as an aide to General Jeb Stuart.  Von Borcke quickly became a favorite of Stuart and a legend among Stuart’s cavaliers, for his bravery and robust good humor.

In the official report of his ride around McClellan’s Army during the Peninsula Campaign, Stuart mentioned von Borcke:  “Capt. Heros von Borcke, a Prussian cavalry officer, who lately ran the blockade, assigned me by the honorable Secretary of War, joined in the charge of the First Squadron in gallant style, and subsequently, by his energy, skill, and activity, won the praise and admiration of all”. (more…)

Published in: on July 22, 2010 at 5:02 am  Comments Off on Prussian Reb  
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Army of Northern Virginia

Last week we looked at Stephen Vincent’s poem about the Army of the Potomac in his magnum opus John Brown’s Body.  Here are his comments about the Army of Northern Virginia.

 

Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground,
Still for the most part, living close to the ground
As the roots of the cow-pea, the roots of the jessamine,
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion-chamber
Of the half-born new age of engines and metal hands.
The fighters who fought for themselves in the old clan-fashion.
Army of planters’ sons and rusty poor-whites,
Where one man came to war with a haircloth trunk
Full of fine shirts and a body-servant to mend them,
And another came with a rifle used at King’s Mountain
And nothing else but his pants and his sun-cracked hands,
Aristo-democracy armed with a forlorn hope,
Where a scholar turned the leaves of an Arabic grammar
By the campfire-glow, and a drawling mountaineer
Told dirty stories old as the bawdy world,
Where one of Lee’s sons worked a gun with the Rockbridge Battery
And two were cavalry generals. (more…)

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 7:01 am  Comments Off on Army of Northern Virginia  
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