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Bill Thayer

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  This webpage reproduces an appendix to Volume IV of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
Appendix IV-2

Lee's Failure to Receive Supplies at Amelia Courthouse

The failure of General Lee to find supplies at Amelia Courthouse, when the Army of Northern Virginia arrived there on the morning of April 4, 1865, gave rise to various rumors.

Writing in 1866, James D. McCabe, Jr.,​1 charged specifically that "the trains which had been sent from Danville [to Lee at Amelia] had been ordered to Richmond to help carry off the government property, and that, through the inexcusable blundering of the Richmond authorities, the cars had been sent on to the Capital without unloading at the stores at Amelia Courthouse." Fitz Lee​2 quoted but did not altogether credit a report, of unstated origin, that "on that famous Sunday a train load of supplies arrived at Amelia Courthouse from Danville, but the officer in charge was met there by an order to bring the train to Richmond because the cars were needed for the transportation of the personal property of the Confederate authorities."

No foundation exists for that part of these stories alleging that supply trains were run past Amelia Courthouse after orders had been received to accumulate supplies there. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mr. Davis, however, thought it necessary, in his own defense, to show that his administration had not been guilty of neglect in failing to set up a depot at Amelia. In 3 S. H. S. P., 97 ff., he caused to be published a series of letters from  p510  General St. John and other officers denying that Lee had requested them to send supplies to Amelia Courthouse. These letters are convincing proof that no specific directions naming the village had ever been received.

On the other hand, in his final report General Lee stated: "Not finding the supplies ordered to be placed there [i.e., at Amelia] twenty-four hours were lost," etc. In his appeal to the Amelia farmers,​3 he said he was expecting to find at Amelia "plenty of provisions, which had been ordered to be placed here by the railroad several days since. . . ."

There is, then, no doubt that Lee thought supplies had been ordered to Amelia, and no doubt that the commissary bureau received no direct instruction to place food and provender at that point. Was Lee mistaken, or were his orders misunderstood? There are no letters in the Official Records showing that General Lee requested prior to April 2 that supplies should be collected at Amelia Courthouse. Colonel W. H. Taylor is authority for saying that no such orders were sent from General Headquarters.​4 Whatever was done, then, in this particular, was done on April 2. Lee's first dispatch that day to the Secretary of War was received at 10:40 A.M. In it Lee said that he would withdraw to the north side of the Appomattox that night and could concentrate "near the Danville Railroad." He did not mention Amelia. "I advise," he said, "that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight."​5 It can hardly be claimed that this was notice to the War Department to accumulate supplies on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, certainly not at Amelia. After the contents of this telegram had become known in Richmond, General St. John telegraphed Lee's chief commissary, Colonel R. G. Cole, asking what should be the destination of the reserve rations then in Richmond.​6 The message, of course, should have been delivered and answered at once; but it is a matter of record that the telegraph station at Edge Hill had then been abandoned,​7 and it probably was some time before a field station was opened elsewhere. Late in the day Lee telegraphed the Secretary of War that he would proceed to abandon his position that night. "I have given all the orders to officers on both sides the river. . . . Please give all orders that you find necessary in and about Richmond. The troops will all be directed to Amelia Courthouse."​8 This, needless to say, was indirect notice to the Secretary of War to provide supplies at Amelia. But this message, whenever sent, was not  p511  received until 7 P.M.9 Meantime, St. John had received no answer to his message to Cole. Not "until night" did it arrive. It read: "Send up the Danville Railroad if Richmond is not safe."​10 This language was, in itself, evidence of a long delay in transmission, for if Cole had written late in the day he would have known that Richmond was not safe.

Colonel Taylor may now be cited as a witness. In 1906 Captain W. Gordon McCabe wrote him for information regarding this incident. On December 9 Colonel Taylor replied as follows:

"I . . . will gladly do what I can in giving an answer to your inquiry 'whether (and where) there is extant the order of General Lee touching the collection of supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia at Amelia Court House in early April 1865.'

"I cannot say that any specific, written order for the collection of supplies at Amelia Court House is extant; nor do I assert that any such order was ever written.

"The presentation of the matter given in Mr. Davis's account would impress one with the idea that the several reports quoted were made in refutation of a charge that sometime previous to the 2nd April 1865, General Lee had given orders for the collection of supplies at Amelia Court House. I am sure that no such order was ever issued, but that is not the real question.

"On the second of April, however, a crisis in our affairs was reached. An emergency, not unexpected, compelled the immediate evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and the retirement to the interior of General Lee's army.

"At that time large collections of supplies were at Richmond, Danville, Lynchburg and other points on the railroads, from which General Lee's army was supplied daily.

"When General Lee confronted the inevitable and notified the authorities at Richmond on April 2nd that he would have to evacuate his lines that night, he said in his telegram to the Secretary of War, 'Please give all orders that you find necessary in and about Richmond. The troops will all be directed to Amelia Court House.'

"What more did the War Department require in the matter of notice that rations would be required at Amelia Court House? The army was being supplied from day to day; in leaving its lines, it would for some days be necessarily cut off from the railroad; but its objective point on the railroad would be Amelia Court House; in the meantime  p512  opportunity was given the Department to send supplies to that point.

"Was it necessary for General Lee to say specifically 'Have bread and meat ready for the troops on their arrival at Amelia Court House'? To the intelligent officers directing the operations of the Commissary Department was not the necessity for providing supplies for the troops at Amelia Court House apparent, when the Department was informed that that would be General Lee's objective point?

"Moreover, I am sure that General Lee gave verbal orders to the Chief Commissary and Chief Quarter-master of his army concerning supplies to the troops; and while I cannot say that each communicated with the head of his department at Richmond, yet, such is the estimate that I place upon their intelligence and efficiency, I am quite sure they must have done so.

"Of one thing I can speak positively and that is that General Lee thought that he had given all the orders necessary and expected to find supplies at Amelia Court House."

In quoting the request to Secretary Breckinridge to "give all orders that you find necessary in and around Richmond" Colonel Taylor evidently over­looked the hour of the receipt of the dispatch. He knew that orders — adequate in his opinion — had been given earlier in the day; it did not occur to him that their receipt had been delayed.

As Lee and Taylor, then, were both confident that the necessary orders had been issued, and as the internal evidence in Cole's despatch points to the fact that it was written hours before it was received, the conclusion is inescapable that there was a long delay on April 2 in forwarding some of the many telegraphic orders that must have been despatched. To that delay is doubtless due the misunderstanding and the apparent conflict of testimony. The commissary bureau, receiving no order, did not re­quisition the quartermaster-general for cars. Consequently, when the President asked for transportation for himself, his cabinet, the most indispensable records, and the government's bullion, he was told that it was available. When the despatch from Cole was at hand it was too late. St. John subsequently reported to Lee, "The transportation upon [the Richmond and Danville] road having been taken up by the treasury department and the personnel of the Confederate government officers. . . ."​11 Had Cole's answer come explicitly and earlier in the day the cars would have been used for food, of course, and the supplies could have been sent easily and in  p513  reasonable abundance, for, it will be recalled, there were 350,000 rations of bread and meat in the capital.​12 If Lee's telegram had been received prior to 7 P.M., it, too, might have served every purpose. As it was, on a delay of a few hours in transmitting a message the immediate fate of the army may have hung.

The Author's Notes:

1 Op. cit., 617.

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2 Op. cit., 383‑84.

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3 See supra, p67.

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4 See infra, p511.

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5 O. R., 46, part 3, p1378.

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6 St. John's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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7 Cf. supra, pp49, 51.

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8 O. R., 46, part 3, p1379.

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9 It is marked "Received 7 o'clock," but the reference to the issuance of orders makes it clear that this was post meridian, as orders had not been given before 7 A.M.

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10 St. John's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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11 St. John's report, Lee MSS. — L.

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12 St. John's report, Lee MSS. — L. As it was, St. John re­quisitioned all the wheeled transportation left in Richmond, loaded the wagons with food, and sent them after Lee.

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