Lee Already Overthinking Grant

March 25, 1864 (Friday)

General Lee in a bit of a fog?
General Lee in a bit of a fog?

It wasn’t that General Lee was in some sort of denial, unwilling to accept that Virginia would yet again suffer a summer of war. He simply believed, as he told Jefferson Davis on this date, that he was “not disposed to believe from what I now know, that the first important effort will be directed against Richmond.”

Previously, Lee had told General James Longstreet that “the enemy’s great effort will be in the west, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.” This was the prevailing thought, and there were good reasons for it.

In the East, the Federals had almost no luck. The closest they came was the battle of Gettysburg. And while that was an obvious tactical victory, it did little more than push the Confederates back into Virginia. Lee had understood what Grant understood – that “the opposing forces stood in substantially the same relations towards each other as three years before, or when the war began.” The fortune, Lee realized, was in the West. All of the true Union victories had laid in the West. Why wouldn’t they give the East a break and place their focus on the other side of the Appalachians?

By this date, Lee had a single piece of evidence that convinced him the main Federal campaign would be in the West, and it didn’t actually seem to support the idea. Lee had a copy of Grant’s March 17th order assuming the command of General-in-Chief, which was published the day previous in the Southern newspapers. In it, Grant states that his headquarters would be “in the field, and until further orders will be with the Army of the Potomac.” He would, like General Halleck before him, establish a office in Washington, but his main headquarters would be wherever Meade’s army was located.

The fact that Grant was coming east to replace Halleck wouldn’t have been surprising, but that he was taking the field to travel and command in person the Army of the Potomac might have tipped Lee off to Grant’s true intentions. In fact, it did the opposite.

Penny for your thoughts, Lee?
Penny for your thoughts, Lee?

Lee immediately began reading far too much into Grant’s order. “There was no apparent occasion for the publication at such a time and place of his intention to take up his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac,” wrote Lee to Davis, “and the announcement appears to me to be made with some hidden purpose.

This hidden purpose, Lee believed he divined. It was reported in the Northern press that Grant had traveled back to Tennessee “to arrange affairs there preparatory to assuming immediate command of the Army of the Potomac.” Neither the papers nor Lee knew what those arrangements might have been, but Lee concluded that they were at least important enough “to require Gen Grant’s personal presence in the West just on the eve of his entering upon active duties with another army.” Lee then assumed that this meant that Grant’s new position was more ore less redundant – that it “evidently leaves everything to go under the direction of the former authorities as before.”

Lee smelled a rat. “There is to my mind an appearance of design about the order,” he went on, “intended to mislead us as to the enemy’s intention, and if possible, induce corresponding preparation on our part.” Lee remembered that a similar ruse was practiced prior to Vicksburg in an attempt to get General Pemberton to abandon the city.

Lee had other evidence as well – or at least lack of evidence to the contrary: “I cannot learn that the army of Gen. Meade has been reinforced by any organized troops, nor can I learn of any coming east over the B&O Railroad which I have ordered to be watched closely.” Quite the opposite, in fact, as Lee received a dispatch from cavalry commander John Imboden that the “enemy was moving troops westwards over that road all last week.” Lee admitted that he could not tell if the troops were merely returning to their units from furloughs or were actually reinforcements sent from Meade’s army, but what he did know for sure was that they were moving away from the Army of the Potomac.

Grant fakes west and strikes east for the score!
Grant fakes west and strikes east for the score!

Additionally, Lee figured that since the winter (and the damage it wreaks upon transportation) ended sooner in the West than in the East, “the roads will probably be more favorable for active operations at an early day in the south [meaning north Georgia] than in Va. where it will be uncertain for more than a month.”

After explaining his reasoning, Lee was ready to state his conclusion to President Davis. “From present indications,” he began, “I am inclined to believe that the first efforts of the enemy will be directed again Gen Johnston or Gen Longstreet, most probably the former. If it succeed, Richmond will no doubt be attacked.”

Though he was fairly certain about his conclusions, he was not blindly so. He admitted that they “cannot do more than weigh probabilities, they are useful in stimulated and directing a vigilant observation of the enemy, and suggesting such a policy on our part as may determine his.”

Lee wasn’t ready to simply let Grant storm into north Georgia. He wanted to watch the enemy and move before that could happen. In the end, Lee advised “that we make the best preparations in our power to meet an advance in any quarter, but be careful not to suffer ourselves to be misled by feigned movements into strengthening one point at the expense of others.”

Here was Lee, who had so often been accused of caring only for Virginia, suggesting that Virginia not be over-protected. “We should hold ourselves in constant readiness to concentrate as rapidly as possible wherever it may be necessary, but do nothing without reasonaby certain information except prepare.”

Lee had some specifics to give to Davis concerning Generals Johnston and Longstreet, hoping that by their movements, they could frustrate the Federals’ plans in the West, which would in turn frustrate their plans in the East. “Energy and activity on our part, with a constant readiness to seize any opportunity to strike a blow, will embarrass, if not entirely thwart the enemy in concentrating his different armies, and compel him to conform his movements to ours.”

General Lee was, of course, dearly mistaken in premise. Grant’s order was not a ruse. The main thrust was not to come from the West, but from the West and East simultaneously – a concept that Lee had not yet grasped. Still, Lee was uncertain, and wished to do nothing but prepare for the worst until something was more solid.

“In the meantime,” Lee wrote in conclusion, peering into the uncertain but likely bleak future, “to guard against any contingency, everything not immediately required should be sent away from Richmond, and store of food and other supplies collected in suitable and safe places for the use of the troops that it may become necessary to assemble for its defense.”1

  1. Sources: Lee to Davis, March 25, 1864, as appearing in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p83. []
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  1. Also worth noting on this date: the Battle of Paducah, one of the few times Nathan Bedford Forrest met with defeat. His men overran the town of Paducah, Kentucky, but the attempt to storm Fort Anderson was repulsed by two nearby Federal gunboats and the fort’s own guns, served by black cannoneers. This frustration may have had something to do with the tragedy at Fort Pillow the next month.

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