March 18, 1864 (Friday)
General George Meade kept in near-daily contact with Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, keeping him abreast of the latest reports from scouts, spies and escaped slaves. It was the latter that on this date brought the news that James Longstreet was back in Virginia, apparently meeting with General Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
This was, of course, fairly accurate information, though by this date, Longstreet was preparing to return to his corps in East Tennessee. Prior to leaving, however, Longstreet, Lee and Davis did indeed meet to discuss Longstreet’s plan to unite all Western armies with his own corps, as well as 20,000 troops from South Carolina. Even Lee believed that the war would be decided not in the East, but in the West.
At the meeting, Longstreet learned that General Joe Johnston, commanding the Army of Tennessee in northern Georgia, thought his plan was ridiculous, and wanted, instead, for Longstreet to move from East Tennessee down to Georgia. In his original plan, Longstreet wanted P.G.T. Beauregard to command not only his column of 20,000 South Carolinians, but the entire army once combined. This was the part that stuck in President Davis’ craw.
For Lee’s part, he stood mostly in silence. According to Longstreet, Lee nervously pulled at his neatly trimmed beard, “and more vigorously as time and silence grew, until at last his suppressed emotion was conquered.”
When Lee again spoke it was of different matters, the subject apparently dropped. Neither the President, nor Johnston would support Longstreet’s plan, and that was enough to take it off the table. Lee shook hands with Davis and then left. What remained was not Longstreet’s plan, but Johnston’s seeming refusal to again take the offensive.
Lee boarded the next train to his army on the Rapidan River, while Longstreet took the Southside Railway to his command north of Knoxville, Tennessee. The meeting, and Johnston’s refusal to play his roll, did nothing to change Lee’s mind that the war would be fought in the West. Whatever plan he might have been formulating was, as of yet, unexpressed. This was soon about to change.
On this date, General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, opposite Lee’s own army, wrote to his wife. “I see General Grant’s assuming command and announcing that his headquarters will be with the Army of the Potomac, is in the public journals,” he began, “and by to-morrow will be known in Richmond. Of course, this will notify the rebels where to look for active operations, and they will plan accordingly.”
This was, no doubt, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grant’s planning would have to be swift or Lee would take advantage of any delay. Neither Meade nor Grant probably knew that Lee figured Grant would stay in the West and follow up his successes, but if they had, they now also knew that Lee’s mind would change. He would see Grant’s coming east as a harbinger of the next campaign.
The next day, Halleck would wire General Grant, letting him know that, “it is thought that Longstreet is now with Lee, and that some movement will soon be made.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p689, 699; Vol. 34, Part 3, p653-654; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. [↩]