Augusta general helped lead Confederate invasion of D.C.

Sep 17, 2011

Of local men who bore arms for the Confederacy, perhaps Gen. John D. Imboden is the best known. But the area produced another general, as well, one whose achievements equaled those of Imboden. He was Robert Doak Lilley, and he has largely been forgotten by all but a handful of historians.

Lilley was born in the village of Greenville in 1836. He might have spent his entire life as a promoter of surveying equipment had it not been for the Civil War. As chance would have it, he was in Charleston, S.C., teaching surveyors how to use the equipment when P.G.T. Beauregard attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861.

Lilley barely gave the guns time to cool. By May 20 he was back in Greenville raising a company of volunteers.

They were called the Augusta Lee Rifles in honor of Robert E. Lee, who had just taken command of Virginia state troops. On June 8 the company marched out of Greenville and into the mountains of western Virginia to help secure control of the crucial Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. Incorporated into the 25th Virginia Infantry, the Rifles were almost immediately thrown into action at Rich Mountain.

Badly outnumbered and outgunned, the Confederates were forced to retreat. In the dead of night, Lilley and his men followed a young topographical engineer who would later gain fame as "Stonewall" Jackson’s mapmaker — Jed Hotchkiss. Before the battle, Hotchkiss had reconnoitered through a laurel swamp, and it was through this swamp that the Augusta Lee Rifles made their escape.

In fact, they were the only part of the Confederate column to do so; the rest was captured.

Hotchkiss, impressed with the Augusta Lee Rifles’ pluck and reliability, recommended Lilley and his men for dangerous scouting work. In October 1861, they helped turn back a Federal assault at the battle of the Greenbrier River, and in May 1862 were part of the scouting force that warned Jackson of Gen. Robert Milroy’s presence at McDowell.

Soon, Lilley and his men were merged with Jackson’s command. Lilley saw action in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862, and in August proved his mettle at the battle of Cedar Mountain. When an attack from the rear disorganized Confederate forces, Lilley snatched up the color-bearer, gathered a small force of men and led a charge that helped maintain Southern control of the battlefield.

Less than three weeks later Lilley was in the thick of it at the battle of Second Manassas, again demonstrating his fearlessness by driving back a column of Union soldiers while commanding Gen. Jubal Early’s skirmish line. Eighteen days later at Sharpsburg, Lilley would see action in the single bloodiest day in American history.

The former salesman from Greenville had shown what he was made of, and his superiors rewarded him in January 1863 with a promotion to major. After a two-month stint in western Virginia with Imboden, Lilley again commanded a skirmish line with valor — at Gettysburg — and was again promoted, this time to lieutenant colonel.

Late November saw Lilley fighting with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Mine Run and in the spring at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. On May 30, 1864, in fighting around Bethesda Church, Lilley was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of Early’s old brigade.

In July 1864, Gen. Lilley became part of the only contingent of Confederates to enter Washington, D.C., marching down what is now Georgia Avenue and participating in Early’s failed attack on the federal capital. President Lincoln arrived to witness the fray and narrowly escaped a Confederate bullet — the only American president subjected to enemy fire during his term of office.

Lilley’s own luck in escaping harm was about to end. On July 20, 1864, near Winchester, he was shot in the leg and the arm and abandoned on the battlefield. Years later he recounted how a moccassin snake crawled over him while he lay helpless. Union soldiers found Lilley and carried him to Winchester where his shattered arm was amputated.

"When he got well," wrote the Staunton Vindicator, "the ladies who had saved his amputated arm presented it to him in a little box. He ever afterwards kept it…"

Although missing an arm, Lilley continued to serve the Confederate cause as commander of the Valley district’s reserve forces. After the war, Lee — who had assumed the presidency of Washington College — recommended Lilley as the college’s financial agent, a job he held for the rest of his life.

On Nov. 9, 1886, while in a session of the Virginia Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Lilley suffered a stroke. He died three days later at the age of 50 and was returned to Staunton for burial in Thornrose Cemetery.

Gen. Robert D. Lilley’s arm — the one he lost at Winchester and kept in a box ever after — was solemnly placed in the casket with him.

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