Of Realism and Optimism in Confederate Richmond

February 23, 1865 (Thursday)

For the Southern command, this was not a day for optimism. Sherman’s army was steamrolling through South Carolina, slashing and consuming a swath before them. Wilmington, North Carolina had fallen, and there seemed to be nothing at all that could stop Sherman from uniting with Grant. But still, through this, General Lee was practical, if not somewhat optimistic.

Lee photographed by Alexander Gardner, February 18, 1865.
Lee photographed by Alexander Gardner, February 18, 1865.

Writing to Jefferson Davis, Lee informed the president that he had “directed all the available troops in the Southern Dept to be concentrated, with a view to embarrass, if they can not arrest Shermans progress.” At the very least, Lee wanted the forces in the Carolinas to unite and stop Sherman from joining with General Schofield, who had just taken Wilmington. Lee believed that Sherman could be heading to the coast, where he would be supplied and even reinforced. If they could only keep him from receiving more sustenance, they might be able to get out of this alive.

The Confederates in those reaches seemed to Lee to be “much scattered,” but he understood that they could be united, and thought Joe Johnston, who had been once sacked as the commander of the Army of Tennessee, was the man to lead them again. Lee promised Davis that “I shall do all in my power to strengthen him.” For once, Lee was not just paying lip service to such an idea.

He admitted that if Johnston’s united troops were backed across the Roanoke River, it would “necessitate the abandonment of our position on James river, for which contingency every preparation should be made.”

This was hardly the first time Lee mentioned that Richmond might need to be abandoned, and the War Department was beginning to take notice. The Assistant Secretary of War, John Archibald Campbell, posed to John Breckinridge, the Secretary of War, several questions. He pointed out that they “should take instruction from lessons afforded by Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Norfolk, Atlanta, Savannah, Columbia, and Wilmington.”

He continued: “It is already fairly in the contingencies of the campaign that Richmond will be evacuated. General Lee has not expressed confidence in his ability to hold it for some time, and has more than once intimated that it might be necessary to withdraw from it.”

Then came the questions. If Richmond fell, where would the government meet? Which departments would be sustained? What about the archives? Could the Quartermaster-General be kept in the loop to make things like transportation a bit easier? When should the citizens and the Virginia state government be notified?

“At no time previously within my knowledge have the military leaders spoken with so much hesitation as to the future,” Campbell concluded, “at not time has the embarrassment as to supplies been so great; at no time have the embarrassments attending the holding of Richmond been apparently greater.” In closing, he urged Breckinridge to adopt some kind of policy.

Smilin' James Longstreet
Smilin’ James Longstreet

If there was one person who was more optimistic than the rest, it was James Longstreet, one who may not be remembered as being a positive specter. Longstreet had a plan, and even if it was controversial, he thought it a good idea.

He was convinced that “Sherman’s move was aimed at Richmond” and that the Southern armies should also unite in or near the city. Supplies were needed, and Longstreet thought that it was not too late to snatch the gold from the citizenry and “the vaults in which it is stored.”

That was not all. Though the South was having a bit of a manpower crisis, he figured that 8,000 to 10,000 men could be gotten in Richmond “by taking everyone who is able to bear arms.” These spring soldiers would not be attacking, of course. They would be filling the trenches so that what was left of the veterans could attack.

“If such a force can be raised and put in my lines it can hold them, I think, and my corps can run down to the relief of General Beauregard, or it may be moved over to our right, and hold Grant in check, so that Sherman will be obliged to unite with him, or seek a base a New Berne or Wilmington. This would give Beauregard [and Johnston] and Bragg time to unite their forces to meet Sherman and Schofield here, or wherever they may appear.

“I am of the opinion that there is not much fight in Grant’s army, and there can’t be a great deal in Sherman’s after his long march. I believe, therefore, that we can beat either back, by a little skillful handling of our men. We shall lose more men by a move than by a battle. It is true that we might be compelled to move after the battle, but I think not. If we fight Sherman as I suggest, we shall surely drive him to the water for fresh supplies, even if we are not otherwise successful. Then we shall have time to concentrate as soon as Grant, and to reopen our line of communication with the south.”

Longstreet admitted that “my ideas are given rather hastily” and it was not too difficult to understand that he was brainstorming. Still, in a sea of depression, Longstreet seemed to be the only one thinking of victory rather than fighting the long defeat.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p1252-1254; Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 11. []


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