‘I Fear Now It Will Be Impossible’ – Lee With Nowhere to Turn

March 26, 1865 (Sunday)

With the utter failure of the assault upon Fort Stedmen the day previous, General Robert E. Lee had now to consider what was best for his army. But first, he had to explain to President Jefferson Davis why he took the risk of an assault, and why it failed.

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“I have been unwilling to hazard any portion of the troops in an assault upon fortified positions,” explained Lee, “preferring to reserve their strength for the struggle which much soon commence, but I was induced to assume the offensive from the believe that the point assailed could be carried without much loss, and the hope that by the seizure of the redoubts in the rear of the enemy’s main line, I could sweep along his entrenchments to the south, so that if I could not cause their abandonment, General Grant would at least be obliged so to curtain his lines, that upon the approach of General Sherman, I might be able to hold our position with a portion of the troops, and with a select body unite with General Johnston and give him battle.”

And so as Lee would have it, the possible benefits outweighed the risks. Also, Lee seemed to indicate that it was not his fault at all. “I was induced to assume the offensive,” he wrote, essentially blaming it either upon John Gordon’s crafty ways or his own gullibility. But then he indicated that either way, it didn’t matter.

“If successful, I would then be able to return to my position,” he continued, “and if unsuccessful I should be in no worse condition, as I should be compelled to withdraw from James River if I quietly awaited his approach.”

But if it didn’t matter either way, one might have asked just how these benefits outweighed the risks. Lee then drew his line.

“But although the assault upon the fortified works of Hair’s Hill [Fort Stedman] was bravely accomplished, the redoubts commanding the line of entrenchments were found enclosed and strongly manned, so that an attempt to carry them must have been attended with great hazard, and even if accomplished, would have caused a great sacrifice of life in the presence of the large reserves which the enemy was hurrying into position I therefore determined to withdraw the troops, and it was in retiring that they suffered the greatest loss the extent of which has not yet been reported.”

General Grant and his staff, March 1865.
General Grant and his staff, March 1865.

In a letter to John Breckinridge, Secretary of War, in the hours after the battle, Lee reasoned that “out loss is reported not heavy.” In reality, Gordon’s 10,000 suffered roughly 40% casualties, with 600 killed, 2,400 wounded, and 1,000 captured or missing. And it was due to these “not heavy” losses that Lee could now see clearly.

“I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near.”

And there it was. It was all but over. In a report received from Johnston in North Carolina, the strength given for that beaten force was 13,500. “He must therefore have lost, after his concentration at Smithfield, about 8,000 men,” considered Lee. “This could hardly have resulted from the casualties of battle, and I fear must be the effect of desertion. Should this prove to be the case, I can not reasonably expect him to bring across the Roanoke more than 10,000 infantry, a force that would add so little strength to this army as not to make it more than a match for Sherman, with whom to risk a battle in the presence of Grant’s army, would hardly seem justifiable.”

Desertions were not simply Johnston’s problem alone. General Lee was currently gathering information on this date about the number of desertions his own Army of Northern Virginia was suffering. He would soon discovered that from March 9th to the 18th, he lost 1,061 men to desertion. This wouldn’t even be the full figuring, as it neglected to fully count the artillery and cavalry, which he admitted “would increase the number considerably.” Lee hoped that some of them might return after visiting their homes, but confessed, “the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

Though it was hardly what an observer might consider a “plan” in the strictest sense, Lee had a plan on how to gather more men to ranks. The recent bill allowing slave owners to force their slaves into the ranks of the Confederate army wasn’t even a little successful. There were, perhaps, two companies being proudly paraded in the streets of Richmond, and little, if anything, more. This would not do.

In a strange series of misunderstandings and missing letters, General Lee, Virginia’s Governor William Smith, and Jefferson Davis tried to tease out an idea. The governor had been waiting for Lee to give him the number of slave-troops required, but Lee had no idea he was supposed to do that. After days of waiting, the governor asked Davis why it hadn’t been done, and Lee, though Davis, wanted the bill to be altered in ways that would have made it impossible to pass in the first place.

“In a letter received this evening from General Lee,” wrote Davis to Governor Smith, “he expresses the opinion that there should be compulsory enlistment in the first instance. My idea [that is, Davis’ idea] has been that we should draw into our military service that portion of the negroes which would be most apt to run away and join the army of the enemy, and that this would be best effected by seeking volunteers for our own army. If this plan should fail to obtain the requisite number there will still remain the process of compulsory enlistment.”

Of course, any enlistment of slaves was compulsory. The so-called “volunteers” were not the slaves themselves volunteering, but the slave-owners volunteering their human property, which, it seemed, they had no desire to do.

General Sherman and his staff, May 1865.
General Sherman and his staff, May 1865.

Turning back to more pressing matters – the enemy forces pressing down upon him – Lee related to Davis that Johnston reckoned Sherman’s army, now united with the Army of the Ohio, to number around 60,000. In truth, this number was much closer to 100,000. And though Lee had no idea how many men Grant had, he reasoned that couldn’t be less than 80,000. Grant’s numbers, in actuality, with the addition of Philip Sheridan’s 17,000, Grant could count 131,000 men in his lines around Petersburg and Richmond (and just under 100,000 around Petersburg itself).

“Their two armies united would therefore exceed ours by nearly a hundred thousand,” plead Lee, who counted about 50,000 in his movable army. If Grant and Sherman could combine their actual numbers, they would exceed Lee and Johnston’s (projected) combined totals of 60,000 by 171,000 men.

For the sake of simplicity, this is how it was broken down.

Grant

  • Army of the Potomac – 80,000
  • Army of the James – 34,000
  • Philip Sheridan – 17,000

Total – 131,000

Sherman

  • Both Wings and cavalry – 70,000
  • Schofield (in field) – 30,000

Total – 100,000
GRAND TOTAL – 231,000

Lee

  • Army of Northern Virginia – 50,000
  • Johnston – 13,000 (though Lee figured it would be around 10,000)

GRAND TOTAL – 63,000

“If General Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle,” Lee wrote in closing, “the latter [Sherman], after crossing the Roanoke, has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussexx, while the former [Grant], moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies.”1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p62, 382; Part 3, p391, 1339, 1348-1349, 1356; Vol. 47, Part 3, p73-74; Lee’s letter to Davis appeared in Lee’s Dispatches edited by Douglas Southall Freeman. []

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One thought on “‘I Fear Now It Will Be Impossible’ – Lee With Nowhere to Turn

  1. This is sad to see R.E. Lee being a bit crazy taking such a high risk attack but knowing the End is very close.

    Since Sherman reached the Sea and was heading North, most people by X-Mass, 1864, new the South was done for.

    I just re-read Mr. Jones’s excellent Diary “A Rebel Clerk” and he makes a great note about this battle… and the next day the crushing news that the attach was defeated and large loss of life.

    Arthur Henrick

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