Lee Reconsiders Grant’s Next Move

March 30, 1864 (Wednesday)

History holds that General Lee made very, very few mistakes. But in the early spring of 1864, he found himself in over his head when it came to the intentions of General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was all but convinced that the main Federal thrust would happen in the west, and that little would be occurring on his own front. He even knew that Grant had decided to make his home with the Army of the Potomac, but still he held to the idea that “the enemy’s great effort will be in the west, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.”

Is Lee beginning to sweat?
Is Lee beginning to sweat?

Now, however, he was beginning to see things in a different light. Lee had been under the impression that Grant would merely be doing his General-in-Chief desk job from the field. But as more and more reports filtered in from his spies, he was willing to admit that his conclusion might have been over-hasty.

“General Grant has returned from the West,” he wrote President Jefferson Davis on this date. “He is at present with the Army of the Potomac, which is being reorganized and recruited. From the reports of our scouts the impression prevails in that army that he will operate it in the coming campaign.”

So not only would Grant be General-in-Chief, but it seemed now that he would be the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Knowing what he had learned of Grant over the past year or so, this hardly sat well for Lee.

“Every train brings it recruits,” Lee continued, “and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it.” This wasn’t far from the truth. Grant wished to greatly bulk up the army, and was pulling in recruits from across the North as well as depleting garrisons around Washington of large heavy artillery regiments.

Additionally, Lee had heard that General Ambrose Burnside was already “organizing a large army at Annapolis [Maryland], and it seems probable that additional troops are being sent to the valley.” This was exactly correct. Grant had given Burnside direct command over his old Ninth Corps, and they were massing themselves along the Chesapeake Bay. In the Shenandoah Valley, Franz Sigel was preparing his small army to storm south to disrupt Lee’s lines of communication.

Lee was also worried that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was being rebuilt from Harper’s Ferry to Winchester, Virginia – a line that his own “irregular” cavalry had decimated time and time again. When his troopers tried once more to attack it, they found the grade “closely guarded along its whole extent.”

Even loyal citizens were barred from entering or exiting the Federal lines, “and everything shows secrecy and preparation.” At this point, Lee confessed that Grant’s “plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume tht if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power.”

But to counter Grant’s more obvious move in the east, Lee suggested an offensive of their own in the West. “If an aggressive movement can be made in the West,” Lee submitted, “it will disconcert their plans and oblige them to conform to ours.” If that were not possible (and judging from General Joe Johnston’s desire to be on the defensive, Lee could hardly have thought that it was), “Longstreet [in East Tennesse] should be held in readiness to be thrown rapidly in the valley, if necessary, to counteract any movement in that quarter, in accomplishing which I could unite with him, or he unite with me, should circumstances require it, on the Rapidan.”

This move might not be enough, and didn’t even address Burnside’s Corps at Annapolis – nevermind Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James on the Virginia Peninsula. For everything else, all Lee could do was ask once more for Davis to pull troops from North Carolina. These had been part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but were sent away to plug holes in this or that crisis. Now was the time for them to return. The sad problem, however, was that, according to the papers, the Federals had also sent reinforcements to North Carolina, which might make pulling the troops out of there impossible.

Lee was, without a doubt, beginning to worry. There was little chance in convincing anyone that an offensive campaign in the West would work, and with only 40,000 men in their camps along the Rapidan, he could do nothing but wait for Grant to make a move. 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p1244-1245; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. []
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