Tredegar Iron Works

May 6, 2013

I had a chance last week, for just a morning, to get away from Washington. For the first time, I saw the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. Tredegar was the major foundry of the Confederacy. For four long years, this installation supplied the Army of Northern Virginia with artillery, cannonballs, and rifles. As we learned there, the location of the Tredegar Iron Works was a major factor in the Confederates choosing Richmond as their capital.

The events of April 2-4, 1865 are well documented and memorialized at the restored Tredegar Iron Works. There is a statue there—dedicated there in 2003—that features President Lincoln seated on a bench with his son, Tad. It commemorates the wartime visit of just one day of Lincoln to Richmond after the Confederate capital fell to Union forces. (The seated Lincoln is wearing not a bowtie, but a standard necktie. I’ve never seen Lincoln so attired. I’m sure that’s why there were scattered protests when the statue was unveiled.)

The original Mayo Bridge had burned on the night Richmond fell. Today, you can walk out over the James River on a partially restored structure that has an amazing series of quotes from people who were in Richmond during the terrible fire and drunken looting that accompanied the Confederate evacuation of the city.

Today, you can read what Mary Custis Lee, Mary Chesnut, and even Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee had to say on that historic occasion. You can read the exclamations of joy and thanksgiving from ex-slaves as they blessed the Lord and thanked Father Abraham for their liberation.

I was struck by one quote in particular: Written on the planks of the river walkway were these words of Abraham Lincoln to a jubilant crowd of freedmen:

'My poor friends,' he said, 'you are free - free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it; it will come to you no more. Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years…

This past week was the one hundred fiftieth anniversary not of Lincoln’s victorious one day visit to Richmond, but of his deepest dejection. The Sesquicentennial of the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) should not pass without notice from us. It was Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory.

Lincoln had issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation the previous September because he was advised to wait until he had a Union victory. Antietam had given him that opportunity. When the time came actually to sign the historic document, however, the Union had just suffered a grievous loss in December under commanding Gen. Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg. Wave after wave of bluecoats were mown down on December 13, 1862 by Gen. Lee’s troops secure behind stone defenses on Marye’s Heights. Lee memorably said then: “It is well that war is so terrible lest we grow too fond of it.”

After yet another futile effort—the infamous “Mud March” where his Union Army of the Potomac was bogged down in freezing rains, Burnside withdrew and Lincoln replaced him with Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Hooker had rashly called for a military dictatorship to remove the civilian leadership of the country. When he chose Hooker to lead the demoralized army, President Lincoln sternly told Hooker it was “in spite of this and not because of it that I have given you command.” Lincoln sagely told Hooker that only successful generals get to set up dictatorships. He asked of Hooker only one thing—victory—“and I will risk the dictatorship.”

Lincoln didn’t have to risk it long. Gen. Hooker was leaning on a column outside his Chancellorsville headquarters when a rebel artillery shot hit the column—stunning Hooker. He failed to relinquish command and led the Union to its second straight catastrophe.

Lee’s brilliant victory at Chancellorsville is still studied in military colleges around the world. He put the federals to flight. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s corps formed the spear point that sowed panic amid the breakfasting Union soldiers, bursting out of the woodsand giving the rebel yell as many of the Yankees were still drinking their coffee.

But Lee’s greatest victory came with his most terrible loss. Stonewall Jackson was hit by friendly fire on the night of May 2, 1863 as he went out to inspect his lines. Jackson’s brother-in-law, Lt. Joseph Morrison, tried to stop the North Carolina troops from firing on their own men, to no avail. When Gen. Lee first heard that Stonewall Jackson was wounded, he knew only that the dour Presbyterian’s left arm was amputated. Even so, he said, “he has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right arm.”

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, one of the Union chaplains, Thomas L. Ambrose, stayed behind with the wounded and dying men of his regiment. In his book While God is Marching On, author Steven E. Woodworth tells us how Ambrose allowed himself to be taken prisoner by Gen. Lee’s forces so that he could pray for his men.

Chaplain Ambrose walked two and a half miles to the headquarters tent of the famous cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, begging for cornmeal for his wounded. Stuart sent him on to Gen. Lee’s tent.  Lee promised Chaplain Ambrose a wagonload of cornmeal. Knowing some of his boys wouldn’t last that long, the Union chaplain hefted a fifty-pound bag of meal on his back and walked back to his camp. Another Union prisoner of war wrote of him: “He was one of God’s Saints and I regard him as one of the heroes of Chancellorsville.”

The Obama administration recently welcomed a group of atheizers who want to court martial officers and enlisted personnel who share the Gospel with others. We can only imagine the reaction of these brave, faithful Civil War soldiers on both sides to such anti-American notions. This is certainly not the freedom that Abraham Lincoln defended and for which he laid down his life.