To understand what Gen. Robert E. Lee was doing, thinking and feeling during the weeks leading up to the Spring Campaign of 1864, I find the following excerpts from his son Robert’s Recollections and Letters most revealing. Gen. Lee certainly knew what was coming and the great sacrifices that would be required of himself, his army, and indeed the entire Confederacy.
In this winter and spring of 1864, every exertion possible was made by my father to increase the strength of his army and to improve its efficiency. He knew full well that the enemy was getting together an enormous force, and that his vast resources would be put forth to crush us in the spring. His letters at this time to President Davis and the Secretary of War show how well he understood the difficulties of his position. In a letter to President Davis, written (late) March, 1864, he says:
“Mr. President: Since my former letter on the subject, the indications that operations in Virginia will be vigorously prosecuted by the enemy are stronger than they then were. General Grant has returned from the army in the West. He is, at present, with the Army of the Potomac, which is being organized and recruited…. Every train brings recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it…. Their plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that, 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….”
On April 6th he again writes to the President:
“…All the information I receive tends to show that the great effort of the enemy in this campaign will be made in Virginia…. Reinforcements are certainly daily arriving to the Army of the Potomac…. The tone of the Northern papers, as well as the impression prevailing in their armies, goes to show that Grant with a large force is to move against Richmond…. The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that General Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”
The question of feeding his army was ever before him. To see his men hungry and cold, and his horses ill fed, was a great pain m him. To Mr. Davis he thus writes on this subject (April12, 1864):
“Mr. President: My anxiety on the subject of provisions in the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops today and tomorrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease, and everything be devoted to necessary wants.”
In a letter written to our cousin, Margaret Stuart, of whom he was very fond, dated March 29th, he says:
“…The indications at present are that we shall have a hard struggle. General Grant is with the Army of the Potomac. All the officers’ wives, sick, etc., have been sent to Washington. No ingress into or egress from the lines is now permitted and no papers are allowed to come out—they claim to be assembling a large force….”
Again, April 28th, he writes to this same young cousin:
“…I dislike to send letters within reach of the enemy, as they might serve, if captured, to bring distress on others. But you must sometimes cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia, and never forget it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it His almighty arms, and drive its enemies before it….”
One perceives from these letters how clearly my father foresaw the storm that was so soon to burst upon him. He used every means within his power to increase and strengthen his army to meet it, and he continually urged the authorities at Richmond to make preparations in the way of supplies of ammunition, rations, and clothing.