As the end of the winter of 1863‑64 approached, Lee began to shape his plan for active operations. He could no longer be guided exclusively by what was desirable in Virginia from the standpoint of strategy. Instead, he had to consider what was practicable with his reduced supplies and weakened transport; and even within these limits he had to adapt his scheme of operations to the increasing threat of a Federal invasion of Georgia. Although nothing of military importance, except a raid on Meridian, Miss., had occurred since Johnston had taken command of the Army of Tennessee, the outlook was dark. Johnston with a badly equipped army was at Dalton, Ga.; Longstreet was cut off from him and wintering most unhappily in east Tennessee. Opposing these two, the Federals had at hand three strong armies so placed that they could easily be concentrated for an advance into Georgia.
How could this dangerous invasion be prevented? No question troubled the administration more, and on none was there a sharper division of opinion. Johnston did not believe he should take the offensive until he was reinforced and supplied with more transportation.1 Longstreet, after some weeks of virtual despair, concluded that the Confederate armies must advance or be overwhelmed. The administration was for an aggressive policy but was unwilling to strip other parts of the Confederacy of their defenders in order to swell Johnston's ranks. Lee was too busy with the problems of his own army to make a full study of the strategic involvements in Tennessee, and as General Bragg was now chief military adviser to the President,2 Lee's inclination p260 against volunteering advice to his superiors was stiffened by military etiquette. Moreover, he had heard nothing directly from Johnston and did not know the exact condition of the Army of Tennessee. His chief contact with the situation was through Longstreet, who wrote him often and at length. Longstreet's first proposal was that he be recalled to Lee, that one corps of the army be mounted, and that it be thrown in rear of Meade.3 Lee pointed out that this was impracticable, and urged that Johnston and Longstreet attack the Federals.4 There followed an exchange of letters in which Longstreet asked for sufficient horses to mount his corps and to operate in Kentucky against the Federals' line of communication. Lee thought that an advance into Kentucky would be desirable, but explained that the horses could not be supplied without rendering immobile the other armies of the Confederacy.5 Longstreet then advanced the remarkable proposal that Lee hold Richmond with part of his troops, take the rest to Kentucky, open an offensive there and leave Johnston free to move to Virginia.6 At this stage of the correspondence, Lee went to Richmond and there learned that the administration favored joint operations by Johnston and Longstreet in middle Tennessee. Lee had apprehensions whether the country would supply sufficient food and forage for this move, but he commended the plan to the study of Longstreet.7 A few days later, Longstreet arrived at Lee's headquarters and unfolded still another plan — that Beauregard be sent to join the First Corps and that these forces execute the proposed offensive into Kentucky.
This appealed to Lee as more feasible, and inasmuch as President Davis had written to Longstreet inviting suggestions,8 Lee urged that Longstreet take train to Richmond and present the proposal to the chief executive. Longstreet, however, argued that he was out of favor with the administration and that his authorship would of itself prejudice the government against his project.9 It would be far better, he said, if Lee put forward the plan. Lee would p261 not, of course, parade another's scheme as his own, but he agreed to go to Richmond with Longstreet and to present the question to the President. He made the journey about March 10,10 and after a quiet Sunday of church attendance and conversation with his family, he called on the President Monday morning, March 14. For this first interview he went alone, probably because he had not procured in advance the President's permission to bring Longstreet with him. There is no record of what happened at this meeting. After dinner, he returned with Longstreet and discussed the situation in the West in much detail but arrived at no conclusion. Longstreet later wrote an account of this council in which he represented General Lee as much disgusted at the insistence of the President and General Bragg on a campaign into middle Tennessee. Johnston was known to be in opposition, and Bragg himself, after Chickamauga, had pronounced such a movement visionary.11 It is quite probable that Longstreet's zeal for his own plan led him to exaggerate Lee's disappointment at its rejection, for it is of record that if a way could be found to overcome the shortage of provisions Lee as late as April 2 was in favor of the operation in middle Tennessee.12 His inclination throughout was to defer to the judgment of General Johnston who was on the ground and, as Lee said, could "better compare the difficulties existing to a forward movement with the disadvantages of remaining quiet."13
Back in the sombre camps on the Rapidan, after his stay in Richmond, Lee thought for a few days that the heaviest shock of battle was to come in Tennessee,23 but by March 28 he concluded that the blow would fall in Virginia.24 Signs multiplied that the Federals were accumulating a large force in his front,25 and Longstreet telegraphed from Bristol that the IX Corps was coming eastward.26 Lee began to call for his detached units, but was willing to have Longstreet remain in Tennessee if there was a chance of an offensive there. As it became increasingly probable that the Unionists were detaching troops from the western army for use in Virginia, Lee reasoned that this might give Johnston a better opportunity for aggressive action, even though Longstreet was recalled to the Army of Northern Virginia.27 "They cannot collect the large force they mention for their operations against Richmond without reducing their other armies" — such was his calm statement to the President.28 The administration took his view of the changed situation and on April 7 ordered Longstreet to return from Bristol, Va.-Tenn., to Charlottesville to await Lee's orders, though the lack of rail transportation made it uncertain when his movement could begin.29
p264 Lee's balancing of the ponderables on the military scales was accurate. He could not realize, and few even in Washington could see, that an imponderable was tipping the beam. That imponderable was the influence of President Lincoln. The Richmond government had discounted his every moderate utterance and had capitalized his emancipation proclamation in order to stiffen Southern resistance. The Confederate people had mocked him, had despised him, and had hated him. Lee himself, though he had avoided unworthy personal animosities and doubtless had included Mr. Lincoln in his prayers for all his enemies, had made the most of the President's military blunders and fears. References to Lincoln in Lee's correspondence and conversation were rare. He was much more interested in the Federal field-commanders than in the commander-in‑chief. After the late winter of 1863‑64, had Lee known all the facts, he would have given as much care to the study of the mind of the Federal President as to the analysis of the strategical methods of his immediate adversaries. For that remarkable man, who had never wavered in his purpose to preserve the Union, had now mustered all his resources of patience and of determination. Those who had sought cunningly to lead him, slowly found that he was leading them. His unconquerable spirit, in some mysterious manner, was being infused into the North as spring approached.
By April 3, Lee commenced to bring up the strongest horses, to reduce transportation, and to make preparations for meeting the large army the Federals were mustering. The Northern states were responding whole-heartedly to the calls sent out in March for 700,000 men.30 Ulysses S. Grant, a soldier equipped with abilities that complemented Lincoln's, had been brought from the West, had been named lieutenant general and had been placed in command of all the Union armies.31 The prospect stirred Lee. "Colonel," he told Taylor, that officer having now been promoted, "we have got to whip them; we must whip them, and it has already made me better to think of it." Taylor added, in reporting this conversation to his sweetheart, that Lee had been "complaining somewhat" and it seemed to do him good to look forward to a test with "the present idol of the North."32 His p265 wish was not immediately gratified, however, for there followed a long rainy spell that transformed the roads into mires. The enemy could not move, of course, until the highways dried, though there was every prospect that as soon as the ground was firm, Grant would cross the river.33 Meantime, conflicting intelligence reached headquarters as to whether the XI and XII Corps were returning to the Army of the Potomac and if so, whether they were moving directly toward the Rapidan, or were gathering at Annapolis, Md., for some undetermined purpose.34
Lee studied with the utmost care the reports that came from his spies during this period of waiting, and on April 16 he was satisfied that three attacks were in the making — a main assault across the Rapidan, a diversion in the Valley of Virginia, and an attack on the flank or rear of the Army of Northern Virginia, probably directed against Drewry's Bluff on James River, so as to expose the water-line of Richmond.35
How could this greatest offensive of the war be met? Lee believed that much might still be accomplished by aggressive Confederate action in the West,36 but from the beginning of the discussion of the next move in Tennessee, he had argued that the alternative to this was an advance in Virginia again Meade.37 "We are not in a condition," he told the President, "and never have been, in my opinion, to invade the enemy's country with a prospect of permanent benefit. But we can alarm and embarrass him to some extent, and thus prevent his undertaking anything of magnitude against us."38 His judgment now told him that the prudent course was to bring Beauregard's army to defend Richmond and to hasten the movement of Longstreet's corps, which was moving very slowly from Bristol. This done, he desired to "move right against the enemy on the Rappahannock," as he phrased it to the President. He went on: "Should God give us a crowning victory there, all their plans would be dissipated, and their troops now collecting on the waters of the Chesapeake would be recalled to the defense of Washington." p266 Regretfully he had to add: "But to make this move I must have provisions and forage. I am not yet able to call to me the cavalry or artillery. If I am obliged to retire from this line, either by a flank movement of the enemy or the want of supplies, great injury will befall us. I have ventured to throw out these suggestions to Your Excellency in order that in surveying the whole field of operations you may consider all the circumstances bearing on the question. Should you determine it is better to divide this army and fall back toward Richmond I am ready to do so. I, however, see no better plan for the defence of Richmond than that I have proposed."39 His confidence in his veterans was not at all shaken by the strength of the Army of the Potomac or by the prestige of General Grant. If the flanking movement against Richmond could be successfully met, he said quietly, "I have no uneasiness as to the result of the campaign in Virginia."40
The offensive if practicable, the defensive if inevitable — between these courses the government had to decide, and decide not only according to its judgment of the strategic situation but also according to is ability to supply the army. Johnston was still unprepared to take the offensive in the West; the danger to Richmond from the East was increasing, while the threat against Charleston was neither more nor less formidable than before; the commissary could do little for the soldiers and the quartermaster general even less for the horses. Thus circumstanced, the embarrassed administration had to compromise. Longstreet's slow movement from Bristol to Charlottesville was continued to Gordonsville,41 so that he would be available as a reserve in case of an attack on Richmond from the east.42 Beauregard was hurried northward with part of his troops, and was put in charge of all the forces between the James and the Cape Fear Rivers.43
On the 18th, Lee issued orders to send back all surplus baggage and to prepare for movement at any time,44 for there seemed no reason to doubt the earlier conclusion that Grant was only waiting for the ground to dry.45 Hourly thereafter, ears were strained p267 for the opening gun; but on the 25th Lee decided that for some undiscovered reason the enemy's advance was temporarily held up.46 He regarded this as an advantage to Southern arms, because in a few days there would be enough grass to supply the animals temporarily and thereby to make a general concentration possible.47
Finding the enemy still inactive on the 29th, Lee hurried to Gordonsville and reviewed Longstreet's corps, which, though reduced in numbers and sadly in need of refitting,48 seemed to have preserved all its old fighting spirit. "General Lee must have felt good in getting the welcome extended to him by those who had been lost to him so long," one private wrote. "The men hung around him and seemed satisfied to lay their hands on his gray horse or to touch the bridle, or the stirrup, or the old general's leg — anything that Lee had was sacred to us fellows who had just come back. And the General — he could not help from breaking down . . . tears traced down his cheeks, and he felt that we were again to do his bidding."49
Returning to Orange, he urged the President to send forward those units of his army that were still in the rear,50 and then he waited quietly for the enemy to cross the river. When the band of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina came to serenade him, he took its colonel into his tent and, as he discussed coming operations, expressed only the hope that he could strike the enemy with his centre so that he could reinforce his attack from either flank.51
On the morning of May 2, he climbed once again — and for the last time — to the observation post on Clark's Mountain, and after studying with his glasses the location of the corps spread out beneath him, and the rolling fields of Culpeper, he told his companions that the enemy's crossing would be at Ely's or at Germanna52 — the fords that led into the Wilderness where the ghost p268 of "Stonewall" Jackson walked. The landscape below him was much as it had been when he had first ascended Clark's Mountain in August, 1862, but the military outlook was far different. Then there had been reserves of men and of food behind him; now there were neither. His it had been in '62 to plan how he would fall upon the foe; now he must exert himself to checkmate the enemy's advance. Yet he knew he could count on the valor of those who, since that August day, had fought the bloodiest battles that ever drenched America. The morale of the army, which had been high throughout the winter,53 was now at its finest fighting pitch. "Never," wrote Colonel Taylor, "was [the army] in better trim than now. There is no overweening confidence, but a calm, firm and positive determination to be victorious, with God's help."54
The spirit of the army was the spirit of its leader. He was as surely the captain of his soul that day on Clark's Mountain as ever he had been in his life. "You must sometimes cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia," he told one of his young cousins, "and never forget it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it His almighty arms, and drive its enemies before it."55 And to his son he wrote: "Our country demands all our strength, all our energies. To resist the powerful combination now forming against us will require every man at his place. If victorious, we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for. . . . My whole trust is in God, and I am ready for whatever He may ordain."
In that spirit he came down from the mountain.
2 He had been named Feb. 24, 1864, "under the direction of the president" to assume "charge of military operations in the armies of the Confederacy" (O. R., 33, 1196) — the vexatious office that Lee had held from March through May, 1862. From the time Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia until the date of Bragg's appointment, the position had been vacant, though Davis considered that Lee was more or less on detached duty and was still his principal adviser (O. R., 51, part 2, p750).
3 O. R., 32, 541.
7 O. R., 32, part 3, pp594‑95. Lee did not state in this letter that the proposal came from the administration, but the information he gave as to the alleged resources of middle Tennessee could not have been derived from any other source available to him.
9 Longstreet, 544.
10 He was at headquarters March 9 (O. R., 33, 1212), though a misdated letter in the Taylor MSS. stated that he was in Richmond on the 8th. He was certainly there on March 13, for Mrs. Chesnut saw him at church (Mrs. Chesnut, 299). She wrongly dated this March 12.
11 Longstreet, op. cit., 546, wrote that Lee pulled at his beard "nervously and more vigorously as time and silence grew, until at last his suppressed emotion was conquered. The profound quiet of a minute or more seemed an hour. When he spoke it was of other matters, but the air was troubled by his efforts to surrender hopeful anticipations to the caprice of empirics. He rose to take leave of the august presence, gave his hand to the President and bowed himself out of the council chamber. His assistant went through the same forms, and no one approached the door to offer parting courtesy."
14 2 R. W. C. D., 172. Mrs. McGuire, op. cit., 255, noted that he was in attendance at the 7 o'clock morning Lenten services in the basement of St. Paul's.
16 The fullest account of life at "The Mess" is that by Mrs. Sally Nelson Robins in Brock, 322 ff. Mrs. Robins was wrong in the date she gave for the Lees' occupancy of the house but she preserved many charming stories of what happened there. The move from 210 E. Leigh was probably made about Jan. 1, 1864. On Dec. 22, 1863, Lee wrote of the "proposed change of residence" and urged his wife to occupy "Custis's room," presumably the front bed-chamber on the second floor, or the "back room down stairs," known in Virginia as the "back parlor" (Lee to Mrs. Lee, Duke Univ. MSS.).
17 The order for Rooney's exchange was dated Feb. 25, 1864 (II O. R., 6, 991). He was in Richmond before March 14 (2 R. W. C. D., 170). For the case of the men in retaliation for whose treatment he had been threatened with death, see II O. R., 7, 119. Mrs. Chesnut (op. cit., 300) is authority for stating that Butler was kind to Rooney Lee.
18 Jones, 401.
19 Jones, L. and L., 303.
21 Jones, L. and L., 304. This was on April 9, three weeks after Lee's return to the army.
22 R. E. Lee to Miss Jennie Charlotte Washington, April 2, 1864, MS., placed at the writer's disposal through the kindness of Miss Eliza W. Willis, daughter of Mrs. Nathaniel H. Willis, formerly Miss Jennie Washington.
31 2 Grant's Memoirs, 114.
44 Welch, 90.
47 Lee's Dispatches, 166‑67.
49 F. M. Mixson: Reminiscences of a Private (cited hereafter as Mixson), 65.
50 Lee to Custis Lee, April 30, 1864, 30 Confederate Veteran, 124; Lee's Dispatches, 167‑68. He had called up the First Engineers on April 12 (O. R., 33, 1278). For the discussion over the organization of these troops, see O. R., 27, part 2, pp1017, 1020.
51 G. C. Underwood: History of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina, 97. Lee told Colonel Lane, the regiment's commander, "I don't believe we can have an army without music."
53 Cf. Welch, 86, Jan. 16, 1864: "I believe if we whip the Yankees good again this year they will quit in disgust." Taylor MSS., Feb. 23, 1864: "The army was never in better spirits, its morale is unsurpassed"; ibid., March 20, 1964: "[Grant], if I mistake not, will shortly come to grief if he attempts to repeat the tactics in Virginia which proved so successful in Mississippi"; ibid., April 18, 1864: "We are in a better condition and more hopeful than ever."
54 Taylor MSS., April 24, 1864. Welch, op. cit., 92, noted that the army believed Lee intended to act on the defensive. "It is said that he is full of confidence."
55 R. E. Lee to Margaret Stuart, April 28, 1864, R. E. Lee, Jr., 123.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 20 Feb 14