Davis Explains the ‘Present Disappointment’ to Lee

May 20, 1864 (Friday)

“The enemy has continued quiet to-day,” wrote General Robert E. Lee to Secretary of War James Seddon, “he is taking ground toward our right and intrenching, but whether for attack or defense is not apparent.”

Lee will enjoy the silence while it lasts.
Lee will enjoy the silence while it lasts.

After over two weeks of near-constant battle, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia welcomed the continued quiet. It gave some time to make sense of it all, and for Lee to contemplate the larger war. From Richmond, President Jefferson Davis penned one of his long letters, explaining to Lee the happenings across the country.

Catching him up on matters close to home, Davis first detailed the struggle near Bermuda Hundred. He explained to Lee in detail that the Union Army of the James was there bottled up by the forces under P.G.T Beauregard, but lamented that the enemy could have been destroyed and their supplies captured if only there had been more co-ordination.

It was hoped by Beauregard that Lee could send reinforcements, best Butler, and then all the forces near Petersburg could unite with Lee’s army to turn back General Grant and the Army of the Potomac. This now was not happening, though matters were secure enough for George Pickett and his division to soon join Lee. Additionally, Davis expected more reinforcements to come soon, but only to the tune of three brigades.

General Beauregard also had other ideas for Lee, urging that Lee “should fall back to the line of the Chickahominy, and that he [Beauregard] should move up with 15,000 men to unite with Breckenridge [with 5,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley] and fall upon the flank of Grant’s army, which it is presumed will be following yours, and after the success to be obtained there, he [again, Beauregard] should hasten back, reinforced by you, to attack Butler’s forces, after an absence of three, and not to exceed four, day.”

Today's very approximate map.
Today’s very approximate map.

This was an incredibly daring, if not reckless, plan, which assumed that Butler would hold tight while the vast majority of Beauregard’s men were trucked 100 miles northwest. Even if they could get into position in time, they would have to assail Grant’s right flank, destroy it, disengage, and return to Petersburg in four days.

Davis assured Lee that it would not happen. He conceded that if the Army of Northern Virginia and Beauregard’s troops were closer together, it would make things easier, but he also admitted the inherent disadvantages. “How far the morale of your army would be affected by a retrograde movement,” Davis continued, “no one can judge as well as yourself. It would certainly encourage the enemy.”

If Lee fell back, as Beauregard wanted, it would, claimed Davis, give the Federals a reprieve in which they could recruit and replenish their losses with little botheration. The Confederates would lose the Virginia Central Railroad as well as the crops and supplies it furnished. Davis wasn’t, however, going to nix the plan, deciding rather to leave it up to Lee. “You are better informed than any other can be of the necessities of your position,” wrote the President, “at least as well informed as any other of the wants and dangers of the country in your rear, including the railroad and other lines of communication, and I cannot do better than to leave your judgment to reach its own conclusions.”

Davis seems a bit more with it today.
Davis seems a bit more with it today.

With matters at home covered, Davis turned west. More than anything, he wanted Joe Johnston to occupy Sherman’s army, disallowing them the opportunity to send reinforcements to Grant. Due to how long it took information to travel from north Georgia to Richmond, Davis was a few days behind, but he was almost instinctual in deducing where Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee would put up their next defense.

“I cannot judge of the circumstances which caused Genl Johnston to retire from Dalton to Calhoun,” Davis wrote. “He may have been willing to allow the enemy to pass the [Rocky Face] Ridge and may prefer to fight him on the Etowah River.” This was precisely Johnston’s thinking now (though he had gone through several other ideas first). Davis drearily ended his letter: “I hope the future will prove the wisdom of his course, and that we shall hereafter reap advantages that will compensate for the present disappointment.”

And speaking of disappointment, Lee was about to have his. The “continued quiet” was about to be explained. After nightfall, General Grant dispatched Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, along with some cavalry, toward Guinea Station. The immediate objective was Bowling Green, ten miles south along the rail line. The greater reason, however, was to play hell with Lee’s supply lines. Normally, this would be the work for the cavalry, but in sending an entire corps of infantry, Grant hoped that Lee would have no choice but to go after Hancock. When he did, Grant planned on hitting him with the three remaining corps. Once the Rebel army was out in the open, the Federals would pounce.

There were, of course, plenty of “ifs” to go around, and Lee wasn’t exactly the most predictable of generals.1

  1. Sources: Letter from Davis to Lee, May 20, 1864, as found in Papers of Jefferson Davis edited by Lynda Lasswell Crist; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 3, p800; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. []
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Davis Explains the ‘Present Disappointment’ to Lee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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