May 31, 1863 (Sunday)
Everybody on both sides of the Rappahannock knew something was soon to happen, but just what it was, almost nobody could say. Even Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was divining a plan to invade north into Pennsylvania, wasn’t quite sure how to make it bare fruits.
Though his army had grown since the Battle of Chancellorsville, it still wasn’t enough to cover Richmond should he decide to pursue the Pennsylvania scheme. General Joe Hooker’s Army of the Potomac would, of course, follow him, leaving Richmond alone, but his army wasn’t the only Federal force out there.
One of the bigger problems was the 5,000 Union troops at West Point, Virginia, where the Pamunkey and Mattapony Rivers joined to form the York. This was so far up the Peninsula that it wasn’t really even the Peninsula anymore. It was merely thirty miles east of Richmond.
Lee had tried to coax General D.H. Hill, commanding in North Carolina, to send a force to Richmond, but Hill reasoned that he had enough problems of his own without looking for them in the capital. Knowing how many men were in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee was fairly certain that he could whip General Hooker’s Army, but not if he had to leave a large force behind to guard Richmond.
He had no idea at all how many Federals were at West Point, but assumed they were possibly gathering their strength to launch some kind of strike. Though he knew that none of Hooker’s men were among them, he felt sure, due to a spy sent to Baltimore by James Longstreet, that Washington was filling the ranks along the Peninsula via Fortress Monroe.
It was now the end of May and still Lee had no idea what the Union Army on the Peninsula might do if he should campaign towards the north. Time was quickly becoming a liability. In a letter to President Jefferson Davis, Lee admitted that he thought “the time has passed when I could have taken the offensive with advantage.” If he waited much longer, Hooker might make the first move, killing the planned invasion before it started.
Though Lee was worried about Richmond, neither Jefferson Davis nor Secretary of War James Seddon seemed to give the build up at West Point much credit. They couldn’t deny its existence, but doubted very much its importance.
“The force there is not very large,” wrote Seddon to D.H. Hill, “and is thought either to be removing or to be concentrating at Yorktown.” And while he didn’t completely rule out a Union attack upon Richmond, he believed that the information Lee was receiving was planted specifically to deceive.
Davis tried to ease Lee’s fears that too few troops would be left to defend Richmond. After telling him that Hill had agreed to send a brigade, Davis assured Lee that should Hill’s force “prove inadequate, as the season advances we should be able to draw further from the troops in South Carolina and Georgia.”
Lee thought all of this was too much for him to handle while preparing an entire army for an invasion into Pennsylvania. With that in mind, he asked to be relieved from the job of commanding everything between the James River and Cape Fear, including all of southern Virginia and North Carolina. Davis declined.
“This is one of the few instances in which I have found my thoughts running in the opposite direction from your own,” he told Lee. “It has several times occurred to me that it would be better for you to control all the operations of the Atlantic slope,” he continued, hoping that Lee would count his blessings that he only had the two states to worry about.
Even if he could relieve Lee, Davis admitted that there was nobody who could take over the command “with that feeling of security which would be necessary for the full execution of your designs.”
Just as Lee had a pet tangent in the protection of Richmond, Davis had his own in the west and took a long paragraph to explain to Lee his own problems.
Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana, complained the President, “are contributing nothing to recruit our army.” General Johnston, he continued, “did not, as you thought advisable, attack Grant promptly, and I fear the result is that which you anticipated, if time was given.”
What Davis was referring to was the fate of Vicksburg. General Johnston did not attack Grant. Grant besieged the city, and before too long it would likely fall. Davis apologized for the “reflections which I have not been able to avoid.” Clearly Davis was showing Lee that he was not the only one with too much on his plate.
Lee wasn’t simply making excuses as to why he had not yet launched his campaign. There was genuine concern in protecting both his capital and his lines of communication. But these fears were soon to be seen for what they were. On this day, as Davis was trying to show Lee that it all wasn’t so bad, Union General Dix, commanding troops on the Peninsula, began pulling out of West Point.
Dix had visited the Point a couple of days prior and decided that it wasn’t such a great spot after all. Instead, he thought that Diascund Bridge, fifteen miles to the southeast, was much better. It was just as close to Richmond, but there the 5,000 troops from West Point could meet up with the 5,000 other troops from York. When word of the pull out reached General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, however, he thought that the whole idea of having any troops so high up on the Peninsula was daft, especially considering that they were needed elsewhere.
On the Federal side, all of this would soon be worked out. When word of the Union abandonment of West Point reached Lee, however, he took it as an indication that he could begin his campaign. But even before a single Rebel soldier stepped a foot upon the road to Pennsylvania, rumors of such machinations would be flying thick across the Yankee telegraph wires not cut by the Rebel cavalry.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p568, 573, 832-834, 842-843; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington. [↩]