When General Lee went to church in Petersburg on June 19, 1864,1 the day after he reached the city, the military problem in the solution of which he sought divine guidance was as grave as any he had ever faced. The front of battle was now •twenty-six miles in length — from the cavalry outposts at White Oak Swamp, to Chaffin's Bluff, thence on the south side of the James from Drewry's Bluff past Bermuda Hundred Neck to the Appomattox, and over that stream, southward and westward in front of Petersburg, to a point beyond the Jerusalem plank road. The whole of this line had at all times to be held. Lee was required, in the second place, to prevent the enemy from seizing ground that would force the Confederate army back into the Richmond defenses;2 thirdly, he had to cover the capital against surprise attack at any point not protected by his lines; and fourthly, he had to keep open the railroads, on which he was dependent for supplies.
In performing this task, for what guidance could he hope? Early might be able to change the gloomy outlook. Lee was satisfied that officer could drive back Hunter,3 and, indeed, on the second day at Petersburg, he received news that Hunter had retired from in front of Lynchburg.4 Perhaps, as Lee had planned ere he detached him, Early could advance down the Shenandoah Valley, spread terror in the North and thereby force General Grant either to detach a large part of his army for the defense of Washington, or else to attack Lee in the hope of compelling him to recall Early. Again, by some miracle, a great victory might be p449 won in the far South that would release troops from that section to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia; but a miracle it would have to be, because Johnston had fallen back from Dalton to Kennesaw Mountain and was as hard beset by Sherman's hammering tactics as Lee had been by Grant's.5
For the rest, Lee had to rely on his own army and Beauregard's, plus such conscripts as might be brought in and such convalescents as might return. Valiant as his army was, the limits to its possible accomplishments were manifest. Although there was abundant reason for believing that the Federals were dispirited after the severe repulses they had sustained,6 Lee's own force had been so reduced by casualties and detachments that he had small chance of undertaking a sustained offensive unless Grant should be guilty of some serious blunder and present an opening. "General Grant," he told the President, "will concentrate all the troops here he can raise, from every section of the United States. . . . I hope your Excellency will put no reliance in what I can do individually, for I feel that will be very little. The enemy has a strong position, and is able to deal us more injury than from any other point he has ever taken. Still we must try and defeat him. I fear he will not attack us but advance by regular approaches. He is so situated that I cannot attack him."7 Lee believed, however, that he could defend Richmond from a direct assault delivered on the northside, provided he could keep the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad in running order for the transfer of troops in an emergency.8
The one advantage of the Confederate commander was this: Grant had approached Petersburg from the east. His lines ran north and south and had not yet been extended to the southwest or to the west. Lee's own lines, on the Confederate left, paralleled Grant's, but as Lee had to protect Petersburg fully, he drew his lines north and south and then to the west. On the sector east of Petersburg, little distance separated the trench systems that sweating thousands were now throwing up under the June sun; but from the point where Lee's line curved to the westward, while p450 Grant's continued southward, the space between the two fronts widened gradually until it became as much as •two miles. The extreme Confederate right, which was lightly held, quite overlapped the Federal front there. This situation gave Lee a certain freedom of manoeuvre on his right. He availed himself of this very promptly and employed his right division as a general reserve to strengthen the sector to the east, as occasion required, or to be moved across the James and aid Custis Lee in defending Richmond.
Sketch of the lines in front of Petersburg, after June 18, 1864, showing how the extension of the Confederate right placed it at so great a distance from the Federal front that Lee could hold it lightly and use part of its defenders as a general reserve.
The question of subsistence was more serious than the prospect p451 of being pinned to the Richmond-Petersburg defenses. Lee was almost entirely dependent on the railways to feed his army. These roads were four in number. Close to the Richmond defenses lay the long-contested Virginia Central. Directly south from Petersburg ran the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad, which was a link in the main coastal route leading to Wilmington and Charleston and thence to Atlanta. Southwestward from Richmond was the track of the Richmond and Danville. This was connected at Danville with the new Piedmont Railroad, leading to Greensboro, N. C. General Lee, it will be recalled, had been very anxious to have the Piedmont completed, in anticipation of a possible loss of the Petersburg and Weldon. Now that the Piedmont was at last open, though wretchedly constructed, it gave Richmond a p452 second, if a slow and devious, connection with the rich corn belt of northwestern Georgia.
Besides these lines, Lee had to defend the Southside Railroad, which led by way of Lynchburg to Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border. This railroad was of no mean importance because it crossed at Burkeville the track of the Richmond and Danville.
The open railroad supply-lines on the Richmond-Petersburg front, after June 18, 1864, showing how cars of the Richmond and Danville and of the Southside railroads could be switched at Burkeville.
Supplies arriving by way of Greensboro and Danville and intended for the army could be transferred to the Southside road at Burkeville and could be sent immediately to Petersburg. This will be plain from the sketch shown above.
Surveying these lines of communication, Lee was satisfied that it would be almost impossible to hold permanently the Petersburg p453 and Weldon, the northern end of which was •less than three miles from the left flank of the Federals. His aim was to keep the enemy from that railway, if possible, until the harvest in Virginia, or as long as he could do so without heavy loss. Meantime, he urged that the Southside, the Richmond and Danville, and the Piedmont be supplied with ample rolling stock and defended by the second-line reserves, so that these lines could supply the army when the Petersburg and Weldon fell into the enemy's hands. "If this cannot be done," he told the Secretary of War, in as plain words as he had ever employed, "I see no way of averting the terrible disaster that will ensue."9
He soon had evidence that the dangers to the railroads were as immediate as they were serious. On the 21st of June outposts reported an extension of the Federal lines toward the Weldon tracks. Simultaneously, the Union cavalry was found to have started on a raid farther down the same road. The only large mounted unit that Lee then had on the south side of the James was Rooney Lee's division, for Hampton was still watching Sheridan north of the river. Rooney's troops, who had skirmished with the enemy on the 21st were sent in pursuit of the raiders. Wilcox's division was moved out to take the place of the cavalry, but it found the enemy's infantry retiring.10 The next day, when Lee rode to the Confederate right, he learned from Mahone that the Federal infantry was again advancing.11 Mahone thought he saw an opening for a flank attack and asked permission to deliver it. With Lee's approval, he led off three brigades from the Confederate right, found that a gap had been carelessly left between the II and VI Corps, and quickly rolled up two strong Federal divisions.12 He skillfully drew back before nightfall with more than 1600 prisoners, four guns and eight flags.13 Still more might have been accomplished had Wilcox co-operated with Mahone, p454 but as Wilcox's orders from Hill were contrary to Mahone's plan, Wilcox held to his instructions and did little.14
Encouraged by the evident low morale of the Federal infantry in this engagement, Lee at once projected an offensive against the Federal right near the Appomattox. As most of the participating troops belonged to Beauregard, that commander prepared the plan of operations. A heavy force of artillery was placed at Hancock's Hill, on the north side of the Appomattox, and was directed to open on the morning of the 24th. Hoke's division was then to advance and was to storm the Federal line. Field was to follow, and the two were to sweep down the Union works. On the designated day, Lee rode out to the hill and joined Beauregard to witness the action. It opened brilliantly but ended abruptly when the advance of Hagood's brigade of Hoke's division was not supported. Hoke apparently thought that Field did not execute his part of the operation, but Lee was of opinion that Field could not have moved forward until Hoke had cleared the lines. "There seems to have been some misunderstanding," he said, "as to the part each division was expected to have performed" — and he dropped both the move and all criticism of it.15
This fiasco of the 24th offset the success of the 22d. The net advantage of current operations depended on the outcome of the cavalry raid undertaken by the Federals simultaneously with the advance of their infantry on the 21st. Union horse reached the Weldon Railroad at Reams Station, •some eight miles south of Petersburg, tore up several miles of track there, and then started out in two columns, one to destroy the line of the Southside in the vicinity of Black-and‑White's16 and the other to wreck the junction at Burkeville.17 Rooney Lee followed the former column and soon engaged it. His father was provoked that Hampton had lingered so long on the north side of the James and seemingly to so little purpose in dealing with Sheridan. On the 25th he sent the South Carolinian a rather sharp call for reinforcements.18 On the previous day, however, Hampton had redeemed himself p455 by a handsome victory over Gregg at Nance's Shop,19 and speedily sent part of his command to the Petersburg sector.
Pending its arrival, Lee followed anxiously the news of the raiders. Those who had moved to the Southside Railroad were driven from Black-and‑White's, after doing some damage there, and then were hurried off to join the other column, which was destroying the Richmond and Danville. The joint force then made for the bridge across the Staunton River, in the hope of burning the span, but it was repulsed valiantly on June 25 by a handful of reserves under Captain L. B. Farinholt, a young soldier whose whole military career had been one gallant adventure.20 On the 27th Lee's information was that the column was returning to the Federal lines by a southerly route, chosen to bring the Federals back to the Weldon Railroad in the vicinity of Stony Creek, where further wreck might be wrought.21
When General M. C. Butler reached Lee's headquarters that day, bringing cavalry reinforcements from the northside, the commanding general received him with flattering attention, in part, perhaps, to atone for his criticism of Hampton on the 25th. As he so often did when he wished to show his appreciation of a visitor's service, he offered him some delicacy that had been sent him. "I only wish," he said, "that I had enough to divide with your gallant soldiers who have distinguished themselves so nobly."22
With Butler at hand, and the rest of Hampton's command coming up, Lee swiftly set a trap for the railroad wreckers. Butler was to place himself between the returning Federals and the Weldon Railroad. Hampton was to join him there. Mahone was moved out of the Petersburg lines and was advanced to Reams Station. Fitz Lee was to support him at that point with his division of cavalry, as soon as it arrived from the northside.
The plan worked out perfectly. Butler and the rest of Hampton's division formed a junction with Rooney Lee. Together they drove the enemy on the 28th and headed him for Reams Station, which the Federal commander thought was in Union hands. p456 When the weary Federals approached that place on the 29th, Hampton pressed their rear, Mahone met them in front, and Fitz Lee struck their flank. The result was an utter rout, involving heavy Federal casualties, 1000 prisoners, thirteen guns, the wagon train and all the loot and Negroes that had been seized on the raid.23
This brilliant action gratified the army, and, though Lee did not know it, their heavy losses led the Federals to conclude that they no longer had a numerical superiority in cavalry.24 There was much jest in Confederate camps when Mahone's returning infantry and the tired cavalrymen told of the speed with which the retreating Federal commander, who proved to be Brigadier General James H. Wilson, had hastened back to the security of the Union lines. The favorite gag was that Wilson had eagerly "torn up" the roads to break Lee's communications, and then, with like alacrity, had "torn down" the roads to escape his pursuers.25 To Lee, however, the fact that Wilson had destroyed parts of two railways meant more than that he had scattered the dust of the country byways in returning to the Federal camps. There was a bad break on the Southside and a much worse one on the Richmond and Danville Railway that could not be repaired for weeks. Lee redoubled his efforts to strengthen his cavalry and to guard these lines of communication.26 Meantime he hauled supplies around the gaps and pushed the work of replacing the ruined rails.27 Writing to the President during the progress of the raid, he reaffirmed his belief that the shortage of supplies was his most serious concern, and hinted that this might compel him to attack Grant in his fortified position, dangerous as that would be.28
THE TYPE OF RAILWAY ON WHICH LEE HAD TO RELY FOR SUPPLIES
As continuous hot, dry weather forced a virtual suspension of large-scale operations toward the end of June, while the men labored to strengthen the lines,29 the only cheer in the army was over the good news of Early's advance down the Shenandoah Valley. Hunter had retreated westward and not northward as p457 Lee had feared,30 but as there was at least a possibility that Hunter might return, Lee reasoned that Early's best method of dealing with that invader would be to march for the Potomac.31 When Early approached New market, and seemed to have a clear road to Harpers Ferry, Lee hoped for a time that his plan would work out — that a farther advance on Early's part might lead Grant to attack the Petersburg lines, in the hope of compelling him to recall the expedition.32 And if Grant could be induced to attack, another Cold Harbor would be awaiting him!
In the respite allowed the Army of Northern Virginia by the hot weather and by the inability of the enemy to undertake a new movement,33 Lee made many new acquaintances and renewed old friendships in the pleasant city of Petersburg. He had established his headquarters on the lawn of Violet Bank, the home of the Shippen family, just north of the Appomattox, and close to the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike.34 It was a pleasant house, with an inviting rear balcony, and was set in a grove of trees.35 The mistress of Violet Bank was an invalid,36 but she was unremitting in her kindness to General Lee, as were the people of the town. They sent him many presents of food, nearly all of which he distributed in the hospitals for the comfort of the sick and wounded.37 From Petersburg people and from friends in Richmond came also more clothing than Lee could use. "If they are not gray," he said about one lot of garments, "they are of no use to me in the field."38 Despite the tenders of the Shippens, he kept his quarters in the old tent he had used since the West Virginia campaign of 1861, a tent now so leaky and battered that in July he had to ask that it be replaced.39 From this tent he wrote to Mrs. Lee on the anniversary of their wedding day: "Do you recollect what a happy day thirty-three years ago this was? How many hopes and pleasures it gave birth to! God has been very merciful p458 and kind to us, and how thankless and sinful I have been."40 From this tent, also, he went out into the grove on Sundays for morning worship conducted by General Pendleton, or by Reverend William H. Platt, rector of Saint Paul's, whose church in Petersburga was under fire and had been temporarily closed.41 At first the bombardment had alarmed the people of the town, but as it continued with only an occasional casualty, they became accustomed to it and went calmly about their duty and their pleasure. The weird sound of the passing shells became as familiar as the whistles of their tobacco factories.42 One day, near the town, Lee encountered a little girl at a gate, caring for a baby. A shell had just fallen in a nearby field, but the girl had paid no heed to it. He drew rein: "Whose children are these?" he asked.
"This is Charles Campbell's daughter," said the girl, "and this is General Pryor's child."
"Run home with General Pryor's baby, little girl, away from the shells. My love to your father. I'm coming to see him." And he rode on.43
It is not of record whether he found opportunity of calling on Campbell, the historian, but he entered cheerfully into the social life of the place, as he always did when his headquarters remained long in one community. When he had the leisure he would often ride into town — sometimes for a meal, more often for a call, and not infrequently to condole with a family that had recently lost a son or a father in battle. Hearing that Norborne Banister of Chelsea had been killed, he went to the fine family mansion. The funeral of the boy was in progress at the time, so Lee remained outside till the obsequies were over, and then he quietly disappeared. The next day he returned and soon was coming almost every Sabbath, on invitation, to dine and talk with the family. The usual Lord's Day fare, it is remembered, was Irish potatoes, one slice of bacon for each person, corn bread, "coffee" made of parched sweet potatoes, and dried apricots sweetened with sorghum — p459 as sumptuous a meal as patriotic city folk could allow themselves in that famished year.44
If there was quiet on the Petersburg sector that permitted these social amenities, there were alarums and anxieties, hopes and forebodings on other fronts of the hard-beset South. General Early's name was on every tongue late in June, and his prospects were discussed in every council and at every bivouac. He was advancing down the Valley and soon would be in position to threaten Washington. Lee continued to hope that Grant would meet this thrust by taking the offensive. "It is so repugnant to Grant's principles and practice to send troops from him," Lee told the President, "that I had hoped before resorting to it he would have preferred attacking me."45 Grant's talent and strategy, he wrote Custis, consisted in accumulating overwhelming numbers.46 But, to his disappointment, Grant did not fulfill Lee's hope. Instead, signs multiplied that the Federal commander was making detachments, and as Lee was confirmed in his belief that he could not advantageously attack Grant in positions that were now exceedingly strong, he began by July 11 to consider the dispatch of troops to strengthen Early. It was a dangerous venture; perhaps it was desperate, for the Army of Northern Virginia, including Beauregard's forces, now numbered only 55,000 men of all arms.47
Many schemes for giving effectiveness to Early's advance were proposed. One was to organize a movement for the liberation of the prisoners at Point Lookout, so that they could join Early. Lee canvassed this thoroughly and sent his son Robert as a special courier to Early to explain his part in a projected enterprise to this end.48 Another suggestion was to dispatch an artillery expedition against Washington. Lee deemed this scarcely practicable.49 Still another plan was to conceal Lee's presence at Petersburg and to create the impression that he was personally leading p460 the army in the Valley, as if it were engaged in a major offensive.50
Opinion varied in the army as to the outcome of Early's operations. Some were optimistic. Colonel Taylor wished that Jackson might have been in command,51 and was satisfied that the blessing of Heaven would not be on a man as godless as Early.52 Beauregard was aggrieved that the leadership had not been entrusted to him.53 Early soon settled all doubts and vindicated Lee's confidence in him. For a time he made a continent hold its breath. By July 4 he was at Harpers Ferry; on the 6th he crossed the old battlefield of Sharpsburg; the 9th saw him on the Monocacy, where he defeated a Federal force under Major General Lew Wallace; on the 11th he was within range of the forts defending Washington. His column, however, was too feeble to venture an assault, and he had to withdraw on the 14th to Virginia soil, by way of White's Ford, above Leesburg.54 Lee was delighted at Early's audacity and much amused at the panic his appearance created,55 but he was not disappointed at Early's return. He had not expected him to be able to capture Washington.b His view of the potential results was conservative. Before Early turned back, Lee wrote the President that the expedition might serve a useful purpose in compelling the enemy to keep troops near the Potomac.56 He did not believe President Lincoln would willingly consent to the return to Grant of the forces sent to guard Washington;57 but he held no high expectations unless Early was strong enough to cross the Potomac a second time, and he anticipated that the Second Corps might be forced to return to the upper Valley if Hunter's column was not called to Maryland.58 In an effort to make it sure that Hunter would be occupied on Federal soil, Lee urged that Brigadier General John H. Morgan be sent on a raid into Pennsylvania,59 but he argued in vain for this. Early continued to demonstrate vigorously, despite his lack of support, and on July 28 he was able to announce that he had again p461 forced the enemy across the Potomac and was himself at Kernstown.60
The outlook in the South became gloomy while Early's advance was raising hope in some hearts. General Johnston was manoeuvred from his strong position on Kennesaw Mountain and fell back close to Atlanta. There were hints that he intended to abandon Atlanta, also, and he was most reticent in his communications with the War Department. President Davis had discovered in the winter of 1861‑62 the proclivity of General Johnston for retreating,61 but he was slow now to give ear to the clamor that arose from Georgia for the removal of that officer.62 Lee must have known that a change of commanders was being considered, but he was not prepared for a crisis when he received on July 12 a cipher telegram from the President announcing that it was necessary to remove Johnston and asking what he thought of Hood as a successor.63 Lee always had cherished a high opinion of Johnston, though he was quite familiar with the peculiarities of his friend "Joe." He knew little of the immediate reasons for the contemplated action of the President, but he knew the limitations of Hood, at least to the time the beloved Texan had left the Army of Northern Virginia. He accordingly wrote the chief executive this characteristic reply, which Colonel Taylor coded:
"Telegram of today received. I regret the fact stated. It is a bad time to relieve the commander of an army situated as that of Tenne. We may lose Atlanta and the army too. Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary."64
Later in the day he wrote the President more in detail:
"I am distressed at the intelligence conveyed in your telegram of today. It is a grievous thing to change commander of an army situated as is that of the Tennessee. Still if necessary it ought to be done. I know nothing of the necessity. I had hoped that Johnston was strong enough to deliver battle. We must risk much to save Alabama, Mobile and communication with the Trans-Mississippi. p462 It would be better to concentrate all the cavalry in Mississippi and Tennessee on Sherman's communications. If Johnston abandons Atlanta I suppose he will fall back on Augusta. This loses us Mississippi and communication with Trans-Mississippi. We had better therefore hazard that communication to retain the Country. Hood is a good commander, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off, and I have had no opportunity of judging of his action when the whole responsibility rested upon him. I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness and zeal. General Hardee has more experience in managing an army.
"May God give you wisdom to decide in this momentous matter."65
This was as reserved as his counsel to the administration usually was in everything that did not pertain to supplies, recruitment, and the operations of his own army. Reading between the lines, it was plain that he doubted the wisdom alike of removing Johnston and of naming Hood. His judgment of the strategy required in the South was plainly put: Johnston, he thought, should send his cavalry against Sherman's communications and accept the risks of battle. A few days after Lee expressed these views, Secretary Seddon visited him, told him that the removal of Johnston had been decided upon, and asked his advice, as Davis had, concerning a successor. There is no record of Lee's reply other than that he declined to give positive counsel and expressed his regret at the necessity felt by the administration for a change of commanders.66 He must have had no little misgiving when he learned on July 18 that Johnston had been ordered to turn over the army to Hood.67 If Hood succeeded, there was hope for the South. But if he failed, only the dwindling Army of Northern Virginia stood between the Confederacy and ruin.
1 1 McCrae, 173.
2 Cf. Lee to a corps commander, in a letter undated and without address, but presumably written on June 21 or about that time, printed in 9 S. H. S. P., 137, and in O. R., 40, part 2, p702: "We shall be obliged to go out and prevent the enemy from selecting such positions as he chooses. If he is allowed to continue this course we shall at last be obliged to take refuge behind the works of Richmond and stand a siege, which would be but a work of time."
3 Lee's Dispatches, 254.
5 Cf. Henry, 384.
7 Lee's Dispatches, 254‑55.
8 Lee's Dispatches, 251.
10 Wilcox's MS. report, 51.
11 Grant had abandoned his drive to the railroad and was moving as if to envelop the Confederate right.
14 Wilcox's MS. report, 52.
15 O. R., 40, part 1, p799. For reports, see ibid., pp796 ff. See also, Field in 14 S. H. S. P., 550; Venable in ibid., 540; Hagood, 271. The last-named officer was very critical of the handling of Anderson's brigade of Field's division.
16 Now Blackstone.
18 Lee's Dispatches, 258.
21 U. R. Brooks, Butler and His Cavalry, 272‑73.
22 Ibid., loc. cit.
24 2 Meade, 209‑10.
25 2 S. H. S. P., 277.
26 Lee's Dispatches, 268‑69, 273 ff.
29 Lee to Mrs. Lee, June 26, 1864, Fitz Lee, 354; 2 Meade, 208; Pendleton, 354.
33 Taylor MSS., July 3, 1864.
34 Taylor's General Lee, 252; R. E. Lee, Jr., 133.
35 Taylor MSS., July 10, 1864.
36 R. E. Lee, Jr., 133.
37 R. E. Lee, Jr., 132.
38 Lee to Mrs. Lee, June 19, 1864; Fitz Lee, 353.
39 Lee to the Q. M. G., July 21, 1864; 11 Confederate Veteran, 531.
40 June 30, 1864; R. E. Lee, Jr., 133.
41 Pendleton, 359; R. E. Lee, Jr., 134‑35; Taylor's General Lee, 254. For the identification of this clergyman, the writer is indebted to Reverend G. MacLaren Brydon, historiographer of the diocese of Virginia.
43 Mrs. Roger A. Pryor: My Day, 200.
44 Mrs. Campbell Pryor's MS. Memoirs, p3.
46 Lee to G. W. C. Lee, July 24, 1864; Duke Univ. MSS.
51 Taylor MSS., July 10, 1864: "Oh! if Jackson was only where [Early] is."
52 Taylor MSS., July 25, 1864.
53 2 Roman, 273.
55 Lee's Dispatches, 279‑80.
56 Lee's Dispatches, 279.
58 Lee to Davis, July 23, 1864, Duke Univ. MSS.
62 Cf. 2 Davis, 556.
63 This telegram has been lost. Its content has to be reconstructed from Lee's answer, Lee's Dispatches, 282.
64 Lee's Dispatches, 282.
65 Lee's Dispatches, 283‑84.
66 2 Davis, 561 and note.
67 Cf. Gordon, 132, though the author was mistaken as to the time of his conversation with Lee. For Taylor's comments on Lee's advice to Davis regarding the proposed removal of Johnston, see his Four Years, 139; Norfolk Virginian, Aug. 22, 1874, with Taylor's annotations, Taylor MSS. It is worthy of remark that though Taylor never saw the text of Lee's telegram to Davis after he put it in code, the original of that message, when subsequently discovered in the De Renne papers, bore out Taylor's description of its contents, almost to the very language. This is to be remembered in appraising statements by Taylor concerning events of which he was the only historical witness. He was remarkably accurate.
a The church survived the war intact, and remains in use today. For photographs and other information, relating mostly to the wedding there of Gen. Pickett, see this page at the Pickett Society website.
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Robert E. Lee
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