January 4, 1864 (Monday)
Since the fall of New Bern, North Carolina, the Confederates had been trying to figure out ways to get it back. It wasn’t really that it was so heavily guarded by Federal troops so as to make it unassailable, it was more so that North Carolina wasn’t really a front in the war. It wasn’t Virginia or Tennessee, Mississippi or even Arkansas.
The true prize of New Bern was in its reported storehouses. These were dearly needed by General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee knew this and proposed to President Jefferson Davis that a brigade from George Pickett’s Division be sent south to retake the town and its spoils. In Virginia, it was clear that no campaigning would take place across the cold winter, and Lee now believed that even though the other two divisions of James Longstreet’s Corps were languishing in eastern Tennessee, he had enough troops to spare.
On this date, Davis made his reply. Lee had also brought up some other issues, such as the lack of food for the army and the rumor that herds of cattle slated for his army had been redirected to Richmond. In light of these, Davis promised “some 90,000 pounds of salt meat from Wilmington,” but dismissed the bit about the rumored redirected herds, saying that the Commissary General of Subsistence “has no knowledge of the droves.” He then suggested dipping into the larders of private citizens and corporations.
Turning to New Bern specifically, Davis liked the idea. “You suggestion is approved,” he wrote, “but who can and will execute it?” Lee had the same question, and suggested a naval officer, since the Confederate Navy would have to play a major roll. Davis, however, had another idea.
“You could give it form,” dropped Davis, “which would insure success.” Davis may have simply been trying to flatter Lee, but as he had made a similar suggestion to leading the Army of Tennessee, there’s a good chance he meant it.
Perhaps Davis and even Lee, to an extent, underestimated Federal General George Meade, leading the opposing Army of the Potomac. The feeling about the Gettysburg Campaign, now half a year in the past, was one of near disregard. Certainly the South couldn’t claim a victory, but they had slipped away from Meade and stopped him twice from advancing farther south. The whole affair was more like a draw to them. And now Davis was thinking that it was possible that the military genius of Lee could be better utilized elsewhere. Lee had refused to go to Tennessee, but would he beg off going to North Carolina?
Davis dipped deeper, telling Lee that “without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered.” Clearly, a failed attack at New Bern would be less costly than Missionary Ridge or even Longstreet’s debacle before Knoxville, but could the young country handle yet another loss?
“It would be well to send the brigade,” Davis concluded, “and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”
And there it was. If Lee refused, Davis would have to lead the expedition himself. So rather than replying immediately, Lee would wait nearly a month to return to the subject. In that time, he would move things along the best he could, keeping an eye on reports from the Virginia Peninsula and General Pickett, stationed in Petersburg, Virginia. His true focus, of course, was making sure his army did not starve to death, and this he would attack with all the vigor he displayed on any given battlefield.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p1064; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]