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 In 1915, some of Lee’s previously unpublished letters and dispatches to Jefferson Davis and the War Department were published in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65.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.
Head Qurs Army No. Va.
Near Petersburg Va.
June 19th 1864.
His Excellency Jefferson Davis
President Confed. States
I have received your letter of the 18th(1)[.] I was able to leave with General G. W. C. Lee only the forces which belong to Richmond. I placed at his disposal two battalions of artillery under Colonel Carter in addition to what he originally had, which I thought might be advantageously employed in connection with [M. M?] Gary’s cavalry and such infantry support as General Lee could furnish, in operating on the James River against any parties that might be landed, or in embarrassing its navigation. I wished him to display as much force as possible, and to be active and vigilant in warding off any threatened blow. His(2) force is not more than sufficient for this purpose, but if we can get early intelligence, and especially maintain the road from Petersburg to Richmond in running order, I think we shall be able to meet any attack the enemy may make upon the latter place. Night before last he apparently reduced the force on his lines in front of Bermuda Hundred, and from the reports received during the night, matters seemed to be so threatening in Petersburg, that I directed General Anderson to march at once with Kershaw’s and Field’s divisions, Pickett’s division being left to guard our lines from Howlett’s to Ashton Creek. I halted one division of Hill’s on the north side of the Appomattox, in supporting distance of both places. General Beauregard had felt constrained to contract his lines on the east side of Petersburg before my arrival, and I found his troops in their new position. I am unable to judge of the comparative strength of the two lines, but as far as I can see, the only disadvantage is the proximity of the new line to the city.(3) No attack has been made by the enemy since my arrival, though sharp skirmishing and cannonading has been kept up. My greatest apprehension at present is the maintenance of our communications south. It will be difficult, and I fear impracticable to preserve it uninterrupted. The enemy’s left now rests on the Jerusalem road, and I fear it would be impossible to arrest a sudden attack aimed at a distant point. In addition, the enemy’s cavalry, in spite of all our efforts, can burn the bridges over the Nottoway and its branches, the Meherrin & even the South side road is very much exposed, and our only dependence seems to me to be on the Danville. Every effort should be made to secure to that road sufficient rolling stock by transferring that of other roads, and to accumulate supplies of all kinds in Richmond in anticipation of temporary interruptions. When roads are broken every aid should be given to the companies to enable them to restore them immediately. Duplicate timbers for all the bridges should be prepared in safe places to be used in an emergency, and every other arrangement made to keep the roads in running order.(4)
Most respectfully and truly yours
R. E. Lee
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) Not found.
(2) Cf. R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee, June 21, 1864: “… You must judge of the essential points to hold in order to thwart the enemy in his approach to Richmond. Whatever operations you may decide upon I advise that you use all your available force for the purpose. I should hope your force with Carter’s artillery could drive the enemy back.” The combination of fatherly exhortation and military command in this correspondence with General Custis Lee is striking. Custis Lee, the great commander’s oldest son, had for some time been with the President in Richmond and showed, perhaps, some misgivings when thus summoned into the field. His conduct, however, was such as to elicit “the highest praise” (see O. R., 40, 2, 674).
(3) The new line was described by Beauregard as follows: “General Hoke’s line, commencing at the river and in advance of Taylor’s Creek, will follow the ditch behind the race-course, afterward crossing the creek and joining General Johnson’s left toward the Baxter road. General Johnson’s line will cross the Baxter road nearly at right angles, thence running to the Jerusalem plank road, and from that point following the original lines” (O. R., loc.cit., 666). This became a part of the main line during the siege of Petersburg.
(4) Cf. Lee to Seddon, June 21, 1864 (O. R., loc. cit., 671-72) in which Lee urges that the Danville, Piedmont and Southside railroads “be well stocked with the rolling-stock and materials not so essential to us” and also that these roads be guarded. For this purpose, he suggested the appointment of a competent brigadier-general to assume charge of the 3,000 reserves whom General Pickett had for the work.
- 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. 250-253 ↩