Editor’s Note: Many Confederate records from 1864 were lost during Lee’s retreat from Richmond and Petersburg. As a result, many useful primary sources from the Confederate side have been lost. What might be less well known is that not all of Robert E. Lee’s known writings from the time of the Petersburg Campaign were put into the Official Records. In 1915, some of Lee’s previously unpublished letters and dispatches to Jefferson Davis and the War Department were published in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65. These letters and dispatches came from the private collection of Wymberley Jones De Renne of Wormsloe, Georgia. Many of these letters and telegrams contain insight into the Siege of Petersburg, and will appear here 150 years to the day after they were written by Lee. The numbering system used in the book will also be utilized here, but some numbers may be missing because the corresponding letter or dispatch does not pertain directly to the Siege of Petersburg.
HDQRS A N Va
12:10 P.M. 14th June 1864.
His Excy Jeffn Davis
Presdt. C. States
I have just received your note of 11 1/2 P.M. yesterday,(1) I regret very much that I did not see you yesterday afternoon, and especially after your having taken so long a ride. If the movement of Early meets with your approval, I am sure it is the best that can be made, though I know how difficult it is with my limited knowledge to perceive what is best.
I think the enemy must be preparing to move South of James River. Our scouts and pickets yesterday stated that Gen Grant’s whole army was in motion for the fords of the Chickahominy from Long Bridge down, from which I inferred that he was making his way to the James River as his new base.(2) I cannot however learn positively that more than a small part of his Army has crossed the Chickahominy. Our contest last evening, as far as I am able to judge was with a heavy force of cavalry and the 5th corps of his army. They were driven back until dark as I informed you, by a part of Hill’s corps. Presuming that this force was either the advance of his Army, or the cover behind which it would move to James River, I prepared to attack it again this morning, but it disappeared from before us during the night, and as far as we can judge from the statements of prisoners, it has gone to Harrison’s landing. The force of cavalry here was pressed forward early this morning, but as yet no satisfactory information has been obtained. It may be Gen Grant’s intention to place his army within the fortifications around Harrison’s landing, which I believe still stand, and where by the aid of his gunboats, he could offer a strong defence. I do not think it would be advantageous to attack him in that position. He could then either refresh it or transfer it to the other side of the River without our being able to molest it, unless our ironclads are stronger than his. It is reported by some of our scouts that a portion of his troops marched to the White House, and from information derived from citizens, were there embarked.(3) I thought it probable that these might have been their discharged men, especially as a scout reported under date of the 9th inst: that transports loaded with troops have been going up the Potomac for three days and nights, passing above Alexandria. On the night of the 8th, upwards of thirty steamers went up, supposed to be filled with troops, no doubt many of these were wounded and sick men. Still I apprehend that he may be sending troops up the James River with the view of getting possession of Petersburg before we can reinforce it. We ought therefore to be extremely watchful & guarded. Unless I hear something satisfactory by evening, I shall move Hoke’s division back to the vicinity of the Ponton Bridge across James River in order that he may cross if necessary. The rest of the army can follow should circumstances require it. The victories of Forest and Hampton are very grateful at this time, and show that we are not forsaken by a gracious Providence. We have only to do our whole duty, and everything will be well. A scout in Prince William reports that the enemy are rebuilding the bridges on the O[range] & A[lexandria] R. R.(4) adjacent to Alexandria. This may be with the view of opening the Manassas Gap R R to communicate with the Valley, their tenure of which I trust will not be permanent.
Your obt servt
R. E. Lee
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) Not found.
(2) This dispatch and those following, to No. 137, inclusive, relate to the movement which carried the immediate scene of hostilities from the James to the Appomattox and inaugurated the siege of Petersburg. As General Grant’s own statement makes plain (No. 120, supra, Note 4) the repulse of his attacks at Cold Harbor convinced him that Richmond could only be taken from the north by costly assaults. His frank confession that he was unwilling to pay such a price deserves to be taken at its face value. At the same time, it is not improbable that the behavior of his troops at Cold Harbor and the unwillingness of his lieutenants to order the final attack convinced him that the men would not face the certain death that awaited them. As some other course had to be pursued, the most natural one was to move his base from the north to the south side of the James where he could be in communication with his gunboats and could receive without danger supplies and ammunition sent him from Washington. The possibility of such a move on McClellan’s part had been discussed by General Lee in 1862 and was the rational step in the circumstances. It is not probable that the movement would have attracted the attention of historians but for several striking passages in General Lee’s telegrams that indicate ignorance of Grant’s change of base. These passages are three in number and are all in telegrams to Beauregard under date of June 16. Lee wrote: “I do not know the position of Grant’s army and cannot strip north bank of James River” (10:30 A.M.); “have not heard of Grant’s crossing James River” (3 P.M.) and “has Grant been seen crossing James River?” (4 P.M., O. R., 51, 2, 1078). These have been construed to mean that Lee had been duped and that Grant had achieved a remarkable coup. Some have gone so far as to say that in this, as in no single manoeuvre of the war, Grant had the better of his great adversary. A careful reading of dispatches in print prior to the appearance of this collection should have kept critical writers from such errors, though it might not have explained Lee’s dispatches satisfactorily. The advance guard of the Army of the Potomac reached Wilcox’s Landing on James River on the night of June 13 (O. R., 36, 1, 23) and commenced crossing on the morning of June 14. A pontoon bridge was completed by midnight of the 14th, which enabled the whole army to move over rapidly. As General Lee wrote President Davis during the progress of the campaign from the Rapidan to the James, the nature of the country rendered it easy for Grant to get a day’s start of him in any movement he planned. This Grant did on June 13-14 but he did no more. At 9 P.M., June 14, Lee reported that troops were at Wilcox’s Landing, while Beauregard had already announced to the War Department, at 3:15 P.M., that steamers were coming up the river and that pontoons could be seen (O. R., 40, 2, 653). Hoke’s division was forthwith ordered to re-enforce Beauregard (ibid., 654). The next morning, June 15, at 9:30 A.M., Beauregard reported that musketry and artillery fire had been heard on the Southside, and he forwarded statements of prisoners that an advance was being made on Petersburg (ibid., 655). Even earlier, at 7:45 A.M., Beauregard had forwarded to General Lee, who did not receive it, the statement of a prisoner who said that “he belongs to Hancock’s corps (Second), and that it crossed day before yesterday and last night from Harrison’s Landing” (O. R., 51, 2, 1078). At the head of Pickett’s division, Lee reached Drewry’s Bluff, on the south side of the James at 9:40 A.M., June 16, and immediately wired General Beauregard to advise him of conditions (O. R., 40, 3, 659). Beauregard followed with a request for information (O. R., 51, 2, 1078). Then was exchanged the correspondence already quoted on which has been based the claim that General Lee was ignorant of Grant’s movement across the river. A careful scrutiny of Lee’s statements, in the light of his known acquaintance with the whereabouts of Grant’s advance on June 14, would seem sufficient to refute the contention that he had been deceived. No man of his ability could have failed to understand the significance of Grant’s movement to the river, especially as Lee had discussed, two years before, the possibility of precisely such action on the part of McClellan. It would seem altogether reasonable, in the circumstances, to interpret his questions to Beauregard as answers to the latter’s request for troops: Was Beauregard certain, when he asked for more men, that Grant had really crossed the river. Was Beauregard advised as to the exact location not of the advance or of troops that might have come up the James, but of Grant’s army? But if the Official Records cannot directly prove that Lee was not deceived by Grant’s movement, the dispatches here printed settle the question beyond a doubt. This dispatch of itself, written while the movement of Grant’s army was in progress, makes it perfectly plain that Lee expected Grant to cross the river. Three hours later (No. 126) he was certain that Grant was at least in a position to cross the river and he had dispatched Hoke for a like change of base whenever conditions warranted it. He confirmed this statement a little later (4 o’clock) and added that Grant had broken up his base at the White House (No. 127). The next afternoon, still lacking definite information, he determined further to reinforce Beauregard (No. 128) and to move to the exterior line of Richmond defences where he would be ready for developments on either side of the river. That he did not send more troops to Beauregard was due to the latter’s statement that with his original command, including Ransom’s brigade, he believed he could hold Butler at bay and defend Petersburg. Lee also ordered a pontoon bridge thrown across the James for the movement of the entire army to face Grant if conditions called for it (No. 129). At 12:45 on the 15th, he was of opinion that Grant’s plans did not “appear to be settled” as cavalry was active on the north side of the James, but he prepared for all eventualities (No. 130). On the morning of June 16, when he crossed the river, he promptly ordered troops to retake the lines which had been occupied by the enemy on Beauregard’s withdrawal to defend Petersburg. He was only uncertain as to whether the troops facing Beauregard in front of Petersburg were of Grant’s army or of the forces that had originally confronted Beauregard (No. 134). The latter’s brilliant defence of Petersburg and the strength of the forces in his front confirmed General Lee in his belief that the greater part of Grant’s army had crossed the river and he advised General Hampton on June 17 (hour not given in the dispatch). It must be remembered, finally, that the removal of troops from the White House to join the army on the James had further involved the issue and rendered it somewhat uncertain, on June 16, whether the new forces in front of Beauregard were a part of Grant’s army from across the river or were troops who had come up the James by transports. We may conclude with absolute certainty that General Lee anticipated the movement across the James, prepared for it and was no more uncertain as to the precise time of crossing than the nature of the ground and the limitations on his sources of information made inevitable. Viewed in its true light, the transfer of Grant’s army across the river was met as promptly and as forcefully as the weakness of Lee’s forces permitted.
(3) To pass down the York and up the James to rejoin Grant.
(4) The Orange and Alexandria, now a part of the Southern railway.
HDQRS AN Va.
3 3/4 P.M. 14th June 1864.
His Excy Jeffn Davis
President C. States
As far as I can judge from the information I have received, Gen. Grant has moved his army to James River in the vicinity of Westover. A portion of it I am told moved to Wilcox’s landing, a short distance below. I see no indications of his attacking me on this side of the River, though of course I cannot know positively. As his facilities for crossing the River and taking possession of Petersburg are great, and as I think it will more probably be his plan, I have sent Gen Hoke with his command to a point above Drewry’s Bluff in easy distance of the first Pontoon Bridge above that place. He will execute any orders You may send to him there.(1) I cannot judge now whether he should move at once to the other side of the River, but think it prudent that he should be in position to do so when required. From my present information Gen. Grant crossed his army at several points below Long Bridge,(2) and moved directly towards James River, sending a force in this direction to guard the roads so as to make it impracticable for us to reach him.
Your obt servt
R. E. Lee
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) See Bragg to Beauregard, June 14, 1864 (O. R., 1, 40, 2, 653), Hoke to Beauregard, June 14, 1864 (ibid., 654). Beauregard, on June 7, had requested the return of this and of Ransom’s division, with these significant words: “Should Grant have left Lee’s front, he doubtless intends operations along James River, probably on south side. Petersburg being nearly defenseless would be captured before it could be reenforced.” Two days later Beauregard enlarged on the prospect of Grant’s crossing the river and outlined a plan of defence (O. R., 36, , 878–879, 886).
(2) On the Chickahominy, beyond the outer defences of Richmond.
Head Qurs. A N Va
June 14th 1864. 4 P.M.
Gen Braxton Bragg
Comg. Armies C. States
I have directed Gen Hoke’s command to proceed this afternoon to the vicinity of the first pontoon bridge above Drewry’s Bluff—(1) I have deemed it prudent that he should be within reach of Petersburg. For as far as I am able to judge of the movements of the Army of Gen Grant I think it probable that he will cross James River. He has moved his Army across Long Bridge & the bridges below that point to James River apparently striking for Harrison’s & Wilcox’s landing.(2) He shows no indication of operating on this side & has broken up his depot at the White House.(3)
I am with great respect
Your obt servt.
R. E. Lee Genl.3
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) Drewry’s Bluff, with the famous Fort Darling, was at the southwestern end of the Richmond defences, across James River and was defended with strong works against an attack from the south or west. It effectually blocked a movement up the James River against Richmond.
(2) On the James almost directly east of Petersburg.
(3) On the Pamunkey, one of the most important lines of water-communication for an attack on Richmond from the east. With the correspondence for June 14, is filed in the De Renne collection the following dispatch from General Lee’s son, G. W. C. Lee, to President Davis:
Dated Bottoms Bridge 13 June 1864.
Recd at Richmond June 13, 1864.
To His Excellency the President
I learn that Maj-Genl Elzy and staff are in Richmond
Cannot he be temporarily assigned to his former command.
He can take charge at once, some one is very much needed
G W C Lee
Col. & A[ide] D[e] C[amp]
- Freeman, Douglas Southall (ed.). Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C. S. A. to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America 1862-65. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, pp. 226-232 ↩
- Freeman, Douglas Southall (ed.). Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C. S. A. to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America 1862-65. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, pp. 232-233 ↩
- Freeman, Douglas Southall (ed.). Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C. S. A. to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America 1862-65. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, p. 234 ↩