April 27, 1864 (Wednesday)
This is my forty second birth day. Getting old am I not? – I received a very short letter from you this evening scratched off in a very great hurry as if you had something much more pleasing if not more important to do than to write to me. I’ll excuse you though. It only gratifying a little desire to appear angry that I am indulging in. Your letter enclosed three horseshoes from Mrs. McDowell which I will wear – in my pocket – for the purposes named ie to keep off witches. I am still very well. Don’t know exactly the day when I will start or whether Lee will come here before I am ready to move. Would not tell you if I did know. Give my kindest regards to Col. and Mrs. Hillyer. Kisses for yourself and Jess. I sent $1100.00 to J.R. Jones to day in liquidation of my indebtedness.
It was certainly true that General Grant was not yet certain when he would move, and was even more uncertain if Lee would beat him to the punch. May 1st had been his original intent, but that was, perhaps, a bit hasty. Rumors, gathered at the words of Confederate deserters, held that General Longstreet’s troops, augmented by some from South Carolina “will move down the Shenandoah Valley [north].” If they attempted such a thing, wrote Grant to Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, he wanted Washington to “throw all the force you can to head them, taking, if General Burnside should still be north of the Rappahannock, all or as much of his force as necessary.” If Longstreet stabbed northward into the Valley after Grant made his move, he would “follow him with force enough to prevent his return south.”
Grant had reason to worry. Against Lee, he was untested, and this Southern general paid scant heed to caution when stabbing northward. In truth, Lee had been considering offensive operations all along. When James Longstreet’s troops returned to Virginia from Tennessee, it was the offensive that was on Lee’s mind. Upon Longstreet’s however, the same could not be said.
“I took the earliest opportunity to suggest that the preliminaries of the campaign should be carefully confined to strategic maneuverer until we could show better generalship,” recalled Longstreet after the war. He reasoned that through these strategic maneuvers, the Federals would “lose confidence in the superiority of their leader’s skill and prowess.” On the other hand, if the Rebels were to strike first, the “immediate aggression from us against his greater numbers must make our labors heavy and more or less doubtful.”
Longstreet reasoned that the “power of battle is in generalship more than in the number of soldiers, which, property illustrated, would make the weaker numbers of the contention the stronger force.” And thus, Longstreet argued for a defensive campaign, all the while Lee was planning the opposite.
In the light of history, this might seem bewildering. But the Army of Northern Virginia could once again boast nearly 64,000 troops. Though it was less than he had upon his last invasion of the north, it was nearly what he assembled at Chancellorsville. Lee had, of course, no plans for another march into Pennsylvania, but perhaps some kind of strike against a portion of the Army of the Potomac was in order.
As time wound down, he began to wonder just why Grant had not yet moved. Soon, he would have no choice to be take the defensive, and the only question remaining would be how far back must he fall.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p992-993; Letter from Ulysses Grant to Julia Grant, April 27, 1864, as printed in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, January 1, 1864 – May 31, 1864; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea. [↩]