Organization and Personnel
The Army of Northern Virginia consisted of various commands located throughout Virginia and North Carolina, with the Confederate Army of the Potomac as its core. Although various people, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis, had called it the Army of Northern Virginia on occasion, Robert E. Lee referred to it as the "Army of Northern Virginia" in Special Orders No. 22, dated June 1, 1862, when he assumed command in place of the wounded Joseph E. Johnston. Lee's subsequent orders maintained the heading "Department of Northern Virginia," and the "Army of Northern Virginia" soon became a household name in the Union and the Confederacy.
Nearly half of the men who served in the Army of Northern Virginia resided in either Virginia or North Carolina, and another quarter came from Georgia and South Carolina. The average year of birth for soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia was 1835. The median birth year was 1838. More than half were farmers and nearly all of them (94 percent) came from rural areas. One in seven was a student in 1860, and nearly half resided with parents or an older sibling.
Because of their youth, only about three of eight soldiers were married. When the war broke out, single men—those least burdened with personal obligations—rushed to serve. In 1862, however, as wartime burdens extended to more families, a majority of those who entered the Army of Northern Virginia were married. During the last two years of the war, as the Confederacy strained to place more men in uniform, the army drew older and younger men into the ranks, and almost half of those were married.
Soldiers tended to come from comfortable backgrounds. Their median personal and family wealth (if they still lived with parents or other immediate family members) was $1,295, placing them solidly in the middle class. Slightly more than one in eight soldiers owned slaves, but 37.2 percent either owned slaves or their parents and family with whom they resided did. Four in nine (44.4 percent) lived in slaveholding households, demonstrating a strong connection to the institution of slavery. As a result, these soldiers had an investment in slavery that influenced their decision to fight. An Irish-born private in the 12th Georgia Infantry joked, "A short time ago he bought a negro, he says, to have something to fight for."
On average officers were a couple of years older than their enlisted men. They tended to be wealthier; their combined personal and family median wealth was $3,000, compared to $1,200 for enlisted men. Almost half of all officers or their parents with whom they resided owned slaves, a figure that contrasted with 36 percent of enlisted men. Yet these distinctions were not as one-sided as they initially appeared. One in five officers and their families had a total wealth of less than $400, and almost nine of ten (89 percent) soldiers who owned slaves or whose families owned slaves served the entire war as enlisted men.
More than five of nine (56 percent) soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia enlisted in 1861, and another three in ten (30 percent) enlisted the next year. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the Conscription Act, and three of four who enlisted in 1862 did so prior to its enforcement. Because of poor record keeping, no one knows how many of the army's troops were conscripted. Most likely, the percentage of conscripts ranged from 6 to 8 percent. Less than 1 percent were hired as a substitute for someone else.
Lee Assumes Command
Prior to Lee's assumption of command, elements of the Army of Northern Virginia had fought at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, and at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21. In March 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan began landing troops on the Peninsula between the York and James rivers for an advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond. Confederate general John B. Magruder, with a small command, bluffed the Union troops into advancing cautiously while Johnston and his forces shifted down from the Rappahannock River area to block the movement. Exploits by the ironclad CSS Virginia discouraged the Union from moving too boldly as well. Fearful that the Union navy would push upriver with ground forces and trap the Confederates on the narrow peninsula, Johnston preferred to fall back near Richmond before fighting a major battle. His columns retreated to the outskirts of the capital, covering their movement with a nasty fight at Williamsburg on May 4–5. As McClellan attempted to bring forward siege guns, Johnston felt compelled to act. His poorly planned and badly managed attack at Seven Pines–Fair Oaks on May 31–June 1 resulted in heavy Union and Confederate losses, including Johnston himself, but provided no relief for the beleaguered Confederates.
Newly assigned to command by President Davis, Robert E. Lee realized that if he allowed the enemy to employ a conventional siege, Union troops, with their overwhelming military strength, would inevitably capture Richmond. The Army of Northern Virginia had to assume the offensive and knock McClellan back from the area around the capital. Lee implemented changes immediately. He ordered soldiers to dig extensive fortifications and to husband resources for the upcoming attack. He directed officers to devote more attention to the feeding and well-being of their men, so that the troops were rested and ready for a fight, and he gathered vital intelligence from newspapers, prisoners, and a brilliant cavalry ride around the Union army led by J. E. B. Stuart. Lee also consolidated forces from around Virginia and North Carolina, including Stonewall Jackson's command, fresh from its brilliant Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
On June 25, Lee hurled some 65,000 troops on and around the Union right flank while the remaining 25,000 entrenched Confederates blocked the way in case of a Union counterattack toward Richmond. Over the next seven days, the army hammered back the Union forces in poorly coordinated assaults. The fighting culminated in a devastating repulse at Malvern Hill on July 1. In these battles, the Army of Northern Virginia sustained more than 20,000 casualties while inflicting 16,000 on the Union troops. Nonetheless, Lee's army had pounded the Army of the Potomac back twenty miles from Richmond and under the protection of Union gunboats. The Seven Days' Battles, in conjunction with Jackson's Valley Campaign, shattered a string of Union successes and dramatically shifted momentum in the war's Eastern Theater.
From Seven Days' to Fredericksburg
With the Union army safely within the shield of naval guns and then in transit to the Washington, D.C., area, Lee began shifting some of the Army of Northern Virginia northward in hopes of regaining control of the upper half of Virginia. First Jackson and then Longstreet maneuvered their commands into Northern Virginia. At the Second Battle of Manassas (August 29–30, 1862), Confederates crushed a Union command under John Pope, compelling it to flee to the safety of Washington. In slightly more than two months, Lee had removed most Union troops from Virginia soil.
Days later, the Army of Northern Virginia pushed northward into Maryland. Davis and Lee hoped to draw foodstuffs from the area, attract recruits to the Confederate banner, and influence upcoming Union congressional elections. To the dismay of many Confederates, their reception in Maryland was rather cool. Moreover, thousands of soldiers straggled. Poorly supplied and clad, many lacked shoes and could not keep up on the march. Others went off to plunder; some refused to leave Confederate territory. Regardless of the motivations or considerations of the soldiers who left ranks, this manpower shortage hurt the army badly in its Maryland raid.
Lee divided the army into smaller components to feed on the countryside. While part of the army penetrated well into Maryland, other commands converged on the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Jackson captured Harpers Ferry and its 11,000 men and vast ordnance stores and supplies. It was the single largest capture of troops by any Confederate army in the war.
Despite the straggling, the raid seemed to be going well until a copy of the invasion orders fell from the pocket of a staff officer and was discovered by Union soldiers. With knowledge of Lee's plan, McClellan moved more aggressively to trap the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee quickly learned of the "Lost Order" and directed the army to fall back and concentrate near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Rather than retreat across the Potomac River and save his troops, Lee made a costly mistake and remained north of the river in hopes of repulsing a Union attack and then continuing with the raid. At the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia did fight off Union attacks, but barely. Only the arrival of soldiers under A. P. Hill late that afternoon saved the Confederate right flank from crumbling. Lee's army suffered staggering losses, approximately 13,000 officers and enlisted men in a single day. On the night of September 18–19, Lee's army staggered across the Potomac and back to Virginia soil.
In just less than three months of fighting, the Army of Northern Virginia had attained extraordinary success. It had not only driven Union troops from the gates of Richmond but it had also cleared them from nearly all of Virginia and taken the war into Maryland as well. Yet the cost had been severe. Some 50,000 troops were casualties, and among them 600 officers were killed and 2,000 more were wounded. In fact, this represented just the beginning for the Army of Northern Virginia. Davis designed a military strategy that punished Union invaders of the Confederacy in hopes that the losses would convince the Northern states that the price of reunion was too high. Davis wanted these fights as close to the border as possible because invaders deprived the Confederacy of vital resources and sparked desertion among soldiers who wanted to look after loved ones in occupied territory. Lee implemented that strategy well, but his army also lost heavily. After two years of fighting under Lee, the officer corps alone suffered 1,600 killed and 6,000 wounded. Officers were two-and-a-half times as likely to be killed in action as enlisted men. Ultimately, Lee and others realized that the army did not possess an infinite supply of high-quality officers.
In December, Union forces tried to push across the Rappahannock River. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of Northern Virginia repulsed Union troops, now under Ambrose E. Burnside, but wintry conditions prevented Lee from following up on the victory. Over the next few months, the army suffered from terrible shortages. Both soldiers and animals lived on greatly reduced rations. Many soldiers lacked satisfactory clothing; others had wished for the Battle of Fredericksburg to occur because a victory might give Confederates control of the battlefield and access to Union shoes, winter clothing, blankets, and knapsacks, which, in fact, happened. Supplying the army even modestly became a huge chore for the Confederacy.
From Chancellorsville to Bristoe Station
By late in April 1863, the Union Army of the Potomac was ready for another advance, this time under a new commander, Joseph Hooker. With Longstreet and two divisions in southeastern Virginia collecting supplies and blocking a Union advance, Hooker executed skillful river crossings to the northwest and east of the Confederates. Lee divided his diminished army, blocking the Union penetration near Fredericksburg while the remainder of the army concentrated on the principal Union wing. After testing the eastern flank of this main Union command, Lee divided his force again and sent Jackson with 25,000 troops on a wide movement westward. Late on the afternoon of May 2, Jackson launched a massive attack on Hooker's exposed western flank, rolling it up skillfully, but night fell before he could push far enough to cut off the Union escape route. As Jackson reconnoitered the enemy position, Confederate soldiers assumed he and his party were Union troops and fired on them, wounding the corps commander. In his debilitated state, Jackson died of infection or pneumonia eight days later.
With the Army of Northern Virginia now separated into three elements, the vastly superior Union numbers placed it in great jeopardy. Stuart replaced the wounded Jackson that night, and the next day his troops powered through the Hooker's positions and reestablished connection with the other part of the line. Union troops took advantage of the weak Confederate right and hammered it back from the heights around Fredericksburg, but stout Confederate resistance at Salem Church checked the advance and drove back the Union lines. By May 6, Hooker had retreated across the Rappahannock River, ending the Battle of Chancellorsville.
After the army returned to Virginia and rested, two divisions under Longstreet traveled by rail to northern Georgia. At the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, they spearheaded an attack that shattered the Union line. In November, those same troops tried to storm the Union command at Knoxville, Tennessee, but were repulsed. The rest of the Army of Northern Virginia remained in Virginia. That fall, it attempted to strike a blow against the Union troops, but A. P. Hill's mismanagement proved costly at the Battle of Bristoe Station. The remainder of the winter Lee's soldiers struggled to survive on meager rations and inadequate clothing.
From the Wilderness to Appomattox
Spring 1864 brought the Overland Campaign, a major Union offensive directed by the new commander-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant. Yet Confederate soldiers knew that this was a presidential election year in the Union. If they could whip the Army of the Potomac during the spring and summer, then peace advocates might gain control of the U.S. government and bring the war to a conclusion. Fighting began on May 5 in the Wilderness. Hard-pressed Confederates received a boost on the second day by the arrival of Longstreet's corps, but in the fight Longstreet was severely wounded by his own men. He did not return for more than five months.
Even though the Army of Northern Virginia checked the Union advance, Grant's men slipped around the Confederate flank, establishing a pattern. Lee's men raced to block them, this time at Spotsylvania Court House (May 7–20). Later, it would be at the North Anna River (May 23–26) and then Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12). Day after day, soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia were under fire. Never had they fought in such a prolonged and grueling campaign. Heat, danger, and lack of sleep took their toll. Time after time, the men suffered substantial losses but inflicted more than they took. Nonetheless, the Union army kept coming. Then, in mid-June, the Union columns skillfully swung around Lee's flank, crossed the James River, and approached from below Petersburg. Although Lee was fooled and Confederates were slow in arriving, the staggering Union losses had taken their toll. Against what amounted to relatively light resistance, such as at the First Battle of Petersburg, the Union troops resisted assaulting the Confederate works, and that gave the Army of Northern Virginia time to swing below the James River and block Grant's men. A regular siege ensued, stretching from east of Richmond to south and west of Petersburg. The Union army had suffered 60,000 casualties in seven weeks; Lee's troops had lost about half that number.
From mid-June until late in March 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia fought predominantly from within trenches. Lee tried to break the stalemate by sending Jubal A. Early north with a force that ultimately threatened to penetrate the Union defenses around Washington, D.C., but by late in October Early had suffered disastrously against greater manpower, firepower, and horseflesh. Otherwise, it was trench warfare at its most demanding for Lee's troops. As the Union line extended, the Army of Northern Virginia defenses stretched thinner. Soldiers seldom received reprieve from trench duty unless they were wounded or seriously ill. They bore the broiling Virginia summer sun and the bitter winter cold, usually poorly clad and almost always inadequately fed. Over the last six months, men in the Army of Northern Virginia lived on between 900 and 1,200 calories per day, a diet of corn meal and beef that lacked sufficient vitamins and minerals to break down properly the food they consumed. While some soldiers contracted scurvy, night blindness, and other vitamin-related maladies, most men were simply weakened by the prolonged service, hardships, and lack of adequate nourishment. Desertion began to soar once Lincoln's reelection was assured and Union general William T. Sherman began his famous march through Georgia and then into the Carolinas.
"Still, the Army of Northern Virginia fought vigorously. In the last year of the war, it inflicted 127,000 casualties against Grant's men. That was not enough. At the Battle of Five Forks (March 30–April 1, 1865), Union troops turned Lee's western flank. It was only a matter of time before Petersburg and Richmond would fall. Early in April, Lee attempted an attack that would knock back the Union forces temporarily and enable the Army to escape westward. His hope was to strike the Danville and Richmond Railroad and merge his command with the troops under Johnston in North Carolina. The attack failed, and Lee had no alternative but to flee westward. Marching all night, lacking food, large numbers of Lee's veterans could not keep up. Others fell into the hands of Union forces as the Union troops launched an aggressive pursuit. At Sailor's Creek on April 6, a substantial portion of the army was captured. By the night of April 8, Union cavalry had boxed in the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia around Appomattox Court House. Confederates tested the Union line the next morning and discovered infantrymen there. Lee felt he had no choice but to request terms of surrender.
Grant offered Lee magnanimous terms. Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia would surrender their weapons, although officers were allowed to take their side arms, and sign a parole. They could then return home and were "not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside." Over the next few days 27,805 signed paroles. The Army of Northern Virginia was no more.
Certainly never was there such an Army in ancient or modern times," a soldier wrote to his mother, a sentiment that reflects more than just boasting. Few armies could measure up to the Army of Northern Virginia's suffering. Of the approximately 200,000 soldiers who passed through its ranks, more than 30,000 were killed in action, a greater number than died of disease. Seventy-five percent of all infantrymen, 47 percent of all artillerists, and 44 percent of all cavalrymen were either killed or wounded in battle, died of disease, or were captured prior to the final surrender. In the face of this suffering, fewer armies could still claim to have done such damage on the enemy. Forty-five percent of all Union casualties—including 56.4 percent of all Union troops wounded and 36.4 percent of all Union troops killed in action—fell at the hands of Lee's army.
According to one witness, "tears ran down the old hero's cheeks" when he concluded reading the document. He later signed copies of the orders for soldiers who wanted them.
June–August 1862 - Despite battlefield victories, the Army of Northern Virginia suffers 50,000 casualties, including 600 officers killed and 2,000 more wounded.
Autumn 1863 - Following his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate general Robert E. Lee fails to maneuver Union general George G. Meade into another major engagement during the Bristoe Station Campaign.
June 16, 1864–March 25, 1865 - The Union Army of the Potomac lays siege to Petersburg. The siege is characterized by 30 miles of trenches stretching Confederate defenses thin, and occasional pitched battles, including the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, and the more-decisive Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865.
April 6, 1865 - At the Battle of Sailor's Creek, a trapped and exhausted Army of Northern Virginia suffers more than 8,700 casualties, or about 20 percent of its men. Of those, 7,700 are captured, including Confederate general Richard S. Ewell.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Glatthaar, J. Army of Northern Virginia. (2012, September 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Army_of_Northern_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Glatthaar, Joseph. "Army of Northern Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 12, 2011 | Last modified: September 13, 2012