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 are simply never going to be available. 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 In 1915, some of Lee’s previously unpublished letters and dispatches to Jefferson Davis and the War Department were published in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65.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.
Camp Petersburg 3 July ’64.
I had the honour to receive last ev[enin]g by the hands of Col. Wood(1) your letter of the 2nd Inst.(2) & to learn from him the arrangements made to release the prisoners—I think under the blessing of a merciful Providence they will be successful & result in great good. If any human agency can insure success I think it will be accomplished by Col. Wood to whom I would be willing to trust the operations on land as well as sea. I think we cannot with safety attempt any communication with the prisoners. The first indications of relief must be borne to them by the guns of the captured gunboats— Neither in my opinion would it be safe to throw across the Potomac any party. Their advance to the river even would be dangerous Their transit would certainly be discovered. Col: Wood will send a boat to Cherrystone to cut the telegraph wire to Old Point, if possible cut the wire from the point to Washington before the attack. If this can be done a great advantage will be gained. It would be very desirable to send with him some officer known to the prisoners, to organize inspire confidence & put them quickly in motion. I hope the officers there can do this–separating the Cavy, arty & Infy & officer them according to the arm of service. The only officer here whom I could recommend for the duty is Genl Hoke. If he was now taken from his division in the present emergency I would not know what to do with it. I am afraid it would be lost to us. As the next best arrangement I can make I send to-day an officer to Gen Early to inform him that an effort will be made to release the prisoners about the 12 Inst: & if successful he will certainly know it through Northern Sources. In that event, if circumstances will permit he must send down a brigade of Cavy with Genls Gordon & Lewis to command & lead around Washington the prisoners &c—I think this is all that can be done. The rest must be left to the operators.(3) No corps has left Genl Grant. Men whose time has expired & the sick are constantly descending the river. But convalescents & 100 day men are returning in equal quantities as far as I can judge by the boats reported The 9th corps which is reported to have left I know is here. Indeed all the corps are located along the lines— The day after the engagement with the battery on James river a single turreted monitor is reported to have passed Fort Boykin towed by a gunboat & accompd by another down the river, & up to the 1st Inst: had not returned. The enemy was unusually quiet last night & this morg(4)—With great respect
Your obt servt
R. E. Lee
His Excy Jeffn Davis
Pres: C. States. 1
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) Colonel John Taylor Wood, grandson of Zachary Taylor and President Davis’ nephew by his first marriage.
(2) Not found.
(3) The reference here is to a bold project, conceived at this time, by which Wood and a company of like daring spirits proposed to capture a number of Federal gunboats in the Chesapeake and to use them in conjunction with a land raid by General Early to liberate the Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout. Needless to say, the plan did not succeed. See Nos. 152 and 155 and O. R., series 2, 7, 458.
(4) Along the lines which had now been permanently drawn for the siege of Petersburg. Shortly after this date, General Lee began to forward daily reports of actions and casualties on the front.
- 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. 269-271 ↩