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Robert E. Lee's first victory as commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia came at the end of June 1862, when he drove the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond in the Seven Days' Battles. That fight was a learning experience for Lee and his army--his attacks suffered from poor coordination. So the Southern general reorganized his troops into two corps, under "Stonewall" Jackson and James Longstreet, with J.E.B. Stuart in command of the cavalry.

In August, Lee turned north to face a new threat: the Union Army of Virginia, newly formed under the command of General John Pope. Lee sent Jackson on a long, wheeling march that forced Pope to retreat to the old Manassas battlefield. There, Pope launched a ferocious attack on Jackson's men, who were deployed in a long depression dug for a planned railroad. Meanwhile, Longstreet's troops arrived on the scene and deployed without Pope's knowledge.


As Longstreet's men reached the field, Jackson absorbed a day-long pounding from Pope's forces. Waves of Federal troops poured against Jackson's lines, were beaten back, and then replaced by fresh troops. As Jackson held to his precarious position, Longstreet's troops spread out to the right, at a slight angle forward, so that by the next morning, Lee's army lay in the shape of a V, with Jackson on the left and Longstreet on the right. The bulk of Pope's army lay just outside the mouth of the V.

That night, Lee called the commanders together. He had set his headquarters up just behind the junction of the V, and his staff had secured an old cabin for him to sleep in. Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart all arrived at eight o'clock, as requested. Lee rarely issued orders for his meetings, made the more cordial suggestion of when they should attend, but there was no confusion in the minds of his generals. Now, they had all gathered, their staffs at a respectful distance, and Lee emerged from the cabin, paused, stared up into the dark sky. It was a warm and humid night, and he welcomed the relative cool of the old log house. Stuart was the last to arrive, had just dismounted, and Jackson and Longstreet had made themselves crude seats from a pile of cut firewood.

Lee stood at the door of the cabin, adjusted his uniform, saw the three men outside watching him, lit by the bright glow of nearby fire. Taylor stood to the side, waiting. Lee asked, "Coffee, gentlemen?"

Stuart said, "Thank you, yes, if it's all right, sir." Taylor moved quickly away. Lee looked at the other two.

Longstreet shook his head silently, and Jackson rose, said, "Thank you, General, I do not partake."

"Of course, General, no matter, please, be seated." He walked out among them, found his own seat, a thick-cut log propped upright on the bare ground. Taylor appeared, handed Stuart a tin cup and then moved back, behind Lee, and sat on the ground, his back against the side of the cabin.

Lee spoke first, always spoke first. "General Jackson, your troops performed an admirable service today. How are they faring?"

Jackson rose, stood stiffly, said, "General, I have pulled most of the units back, into the cover of the thick trees. They are somewhat battered, but they will hold their lines."

"Back...into the trees? You pulled them away from the railroad cut?"

Jackson glanced at the others, then looked back at Lee. "Yes, sir. It should be better for their...relief. They will be ready tomorrow."

"General, what do you suppose will happen if General Pope discovers the railroad cut has been abandoned?"

"I did consider that, sir. It can only be to our advantage. My troops can move out of the trees quickly if he attempts an advance."

"Yes, I know. This is not a criticism, General. It might be a good plan. Our best advantage lies in the ground we now hold. It is up to General Pope to advance against that ground."

Jackson sat, and Longstreet stared down, scratched at the ground with a stick, said slowly, "General Lee, I do not believe General Pope knows our disposition. Our deployment on the right was barely contested. He does not seem to have made any serious move to confront our lines."

Lee stared at him, could not see his face for the wide floppy hat. All that afternoon, Longstreet had been in position to advance into the battle, could have possibly relieved the great mass of pressure on Jackson, but had not done so, had told Lee that it was not a good time, that there were too many uncertainties about the ground, about the location of Pope's other units, those not pressing Jackson. Lee had been frustrated by the lack of action, but now it was done, and he could do nothing but look ahead. Lee knew, if Longstreet was right, if Pope did not realize the strength that lay behind the trees to his left, he might be inclined to make a very serious mistake.

"General Longstreet, are you prepared to advance your troops in the morning?"

Longstreet knew there was something implied in the words, let it go. He did not share Jackson's raw lust for plunging ahead, had not been comfortable in an area where rolling hills and thick lines of trees made visibility difficult.

"General, we are prepared to meet the assault."

"General Stuart, have you observed any additional forces coming our way?"

Stuart stood stiffly, held the big hat in his hands, had quickly tossed the cup aside. The presence of Jackson and Longstreet had a subduing effect upon him; the brutal seriousness was intimidating. He began slowly. "General, yes, we did observe a column of troops moving down from the least a corps. By dark, they were still several miles away."

"Good. I do not expect that General Pope will receive much more assistance on this field, not by tomorrow. These are, after all, General McClellan's troops marching toward him. They are likely to be somewhat...slow to advance."

Longstreet looked up, and Lee saw his face in the firelight. Longstreet said, "General Pope is not a well-liked man. Even at the Point he had a way of talking too much, saying the wrong thing. If he has even met with his own commanders, it is likely he has very little...coordination."

Lee stared at him. "What do you mean, General?"

Longstreet tossed the stick aside, stood up, stretching his back. "I mean, General, that even if General Pope is seeking the advice of his commanders, he is not likely to listen to it. He does not have confidence in anyone's ability to lead his forces...but his own."

"If you are correct, General, then he may yet pursue General Jackson's 'retreat.' That will be our opportunity."

©1996 Jeff Shaara

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