December 22, 1863 (Tuesday)
The winter had hardly begun, and it was looking as if it would prove to be the hardest of the war. General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had gone into winter camp, and the Federals before them had fallen back across the Rappahannock River. Lee had just returned from a week-long series of meetings with President Jefferson Davis, and today was back in his headquarters trying to figure out how to keep his army alive across the next few months.
One important decision he made prior to leaving for Richmond was to place Jubal Early in command of the Valley District. Early had commanded Richard Ewell’s Corps through much of the autumn while Ewell convalesced. Upon his return on December 15, Lee transfered Early to Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley.
This was due to two large bands of Union Cavalry under William Averell and William Wells that appeared to be threatening Staunton and the lower Valley. The only force the Rebels had in the area was a small brigade of cavalry under John Imboden. In mid December, Imboden petitioned General Lee for more troops.
In response, Lee sent two brigades from A.P. Hill’s Corps, as well as Fitz Lee’s cavalry brigade. To oversee them all, he sent Jubal Early. By the time Early arrived, the Federals had backed away. Early and Imboden gave chase, but the weather had turned.
“It was an awful night for men to be out,” remembered Imboden. “Our clothes and beards were loaded down with ice. The roads were very rough and freezing rapidly, but in many places not yet hard enough to bear the horses and gun carriages. Through all the dreary hours we pushed on. I heard that two of Fitz Lee’s men froze to death that night, and just before daybreak one of mine was reported frozen to death. Many of my men had no overcoats and only ragged blankets. Fearing more would freeze, I halted in a rich man’s lane, two miles long, and ordered the men to make piles of the rails on either side and set fire to them, thaw the ice off their clothing and get themselves warm.”
The condition of General Lee’s entire army was little better. On this date, he wrote to Early, asking him to do everything he could to send back supplies from the Shenandoah Valley.
“I wish you to avail yourself to the present opportunity to collect and bring away everything that can be made useful to the army from those regions that are open to the enemy, using for this purpose both the cavalry and infantry under your command. I hear that in the lower valley, and particularly in the country on the South Branch of the Potomac, there are a good many cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs. Besides these, there is said to be a quantity of bacon, cloth, and leather, and all these supplies are accessible to and can be used by the enemy.”
These supplies were not in the upper (southern) Valley, where Early’s command was based, but in the lower (northern) Valley, which was largely held by the Federals. Lee was instructing Early to raid northward.
“You will buy from all who are willing to sell,” Lee continued, “and where you cannot buy, you must impress and give certificates to the owners. Of course you will not take what is necessary for the subsistence of the people….”
Perhaps worried that Early’s troops would be disparaged by such a foraging and scrounging raid, in a post-script, Lee wished for Early to lie to the people: “You will give out that your movement is intended as a military one against the enemy, and, of course, will do them all the harm you can.”
Lee’s Union counterpart, General George Meade, was having no such issues. His army was just arriving at their winter quarters along the Rappahannock River, and Meade was taking the time to place his skirmishers to block any intrusion that Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry might attempt.
Rather than worrying about how to feed and clothe his army for the winter, Meade was concerned over furloughs. The terms of enlistment for many of his troops were about to expire. He had successfully convinced over 12,500 thus far to re-enlist. As a reward, his men received a month’s vacation.
Meade’s plan for furloughs was simple, and each would be handled on an individual level until three-fourths of a company or regiment signed on to re-enlist. “The men will be allowed to go home in a body with their officers, and to take their arms with them.” Meade granted 35-day furloughs to allow each of his men at least thirty full days at home.
Over the next couple of months, while Lee prodded Early for supplies, and Early did his best to raid across the ice and snow, much of General Meade’s Army of the Potomac was warm at home with their mothers and wives.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p573, 889-890; Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, C.S.A. by Jubal Early; The New Annals of the Civil War edited by Peter Cozzens and Robert I. Giradri; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863-1865 by Ethan S. Rafuse. [↩]