When we talk about a fall break, most of us are referring to students having a break from classes in October. In 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia had a different kind of fall break, one that they desperately needed.
By autumn the army had gone through a grueling and constant campaigning season that stretched back to the Peninsula Campaign in March, Seven Pines and the Seven Days in June, the Second Manassas Campaign in August, and the Maryland Campaign in September. The troops and officers finally caught a break by late September. That fall the army went through an important reorganization, and much of that became permanent.
Returning to Virginia from the Maryland Campaign, the army camped near Winchester. Here they rested from late September through October. Lee’s troops kept an eye on the Union army, across the Potomac River, but the federals were inactive and posed no threat.
A soldier in the 3rd Arkansas noted, “We were sorely in need of clothing and shoes, and there was not a blanket in the command.” Another from North Carolina agreed, saying, “The conditions of our troops [is] now demanding repose.”
While it is common to refer to the army in August and September as having two corps, under Longstreet and Jackson, in fact the corps were not yet designated as such. Thus those two generals really commanded wings, not corps. In his correspondence Lee referred to them as “wings” or “commands.” It was not until November 6 that the two corps were formally designated.
At the lower level of organization, General Lee broke up and reorganized many brigades. Up until this point, several brigades resembled those of the Union army, with regiments mixed by state. An example is Walker’s Brigade, with regiments from Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Several such brigades were reorganized to contain only units from the same state. For example, Cobb’s Brigade, which originally had units from Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina, was reorganized to be an all-Georgia brigade. Likewise with Semmes’ Georgia-Louisiana-Virginia Brigade, also becoming an all-Georgia unit.
The Texas Brigade, which originally had the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas, 18th Georgia, and Hampton Legion (SC), took on its more famous form with the Texas regiments and the 3rd Arkansas. Several Louisiana regiments, dispersed among Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina brigades, were combined to form two all-Louisiana Brigades.
That October many straggles returned to the ranks and new conscripts and volunteers arrived, refilling understrength regiments. The army’s sick and wounded were moved to hospitals in Richmond or other places, and an effort was made to increase vaccinations.
As often happens in a lull, officers were praised for their conduct and vacancies filled. Many units had lost officers to combat or the rigors of campaigning, and several deserving men filled the gaps in the command structure.
Supply issues were a constant challenge for the army. With all that marching: from Williamsburg to Richmond, around Richmond, to Manassas, to Sharpsburg, and back to Virginia, shoes wore out, blankets were tossed away, uniforms became worn, and other material shortages emerged.
In October and November, shoes and new uniforms arrived at the camps. General Lee put a special emphasis on the health of the army’s horses, issuing orders related to checking on them and replacing those worn out. New limits were also set on the number of wagons to accompany each regiment and headquarters.
The army was also able to improve its armaments. At the start of the 1862 campaign season large numbers of troops were armed with smoothbore muskets, much less accurate than rifles. Over the course of these months, captured Union weapons and improved supplies from factories allowed many units to replace their muskets with rifles. Correspondence notes that over 10,000 weapons were taken in the previous campaigns. Yet even into that fall, several regiments still carried muskets, putting them at a disadvantage on the battlefield. But by 1863 nearly the entire army was armed with rifles.
The artillery was also improved. Confederate artillery in the Seven Days was hampered by both inefficiency and lack of modern weapons. In the wake of the long campaign, the Tredegar Iron Works melted down many 6-pound guns and recast them as 12-pounders. Replacing the obsolete guns with modern 12-pounders put the Confederates on par with Union batteries.
The army also reorganized its artillery. At the start of the campaign some batteries were attached to infantry brigades, and some were attached to a division as the division’s artillery. This diluted the effectiveness of batteries, and meant that some artillery was under the command of an infantry officer who was managing four regiments. Gradually the army’s batteries were placed into artillery battalions, attached to each division. Several understrength batteries were also consolidated, creating full strength units and eliminating many weak units.
All of these things were important tasks that the army needed to do, but it could not address them until it had break. In the six-month period from March until September the army (or parts of it) fought in thirteen major and minor battles (Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Savage’s Station, Glendale, Malvern Hill, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chantilly, South Mountain, and Antietam). The army that took the field at Fredericksburg in December was vastly different from the one that started the year.