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 In 1915, some of Lee’s previously unpublished letters and dispatches to Jefferson Davis and the War Department were published in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65.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.
HD QRS A N Va.
22nd Aug: 1864.
His Excy Jeffn Davis
Presdt C States,
The enemy availed himself of the withdrawal of troops from Petersburg to the north side of James River, to take a position on the Weldon R. R. He was twice attacked on his first approach to the road, and worsted both times, but the attacking force was too small to drive him off. Before the troops could be brought back from north of James River, he had strengthened his position so much, that the effort made yesterday to dislodge him was unsuccessful, and it was apparent that it could not be accomplished even with additional troops, without a greater sacrifice of life than we can afford to make, or than the advantages of success would compensate for. As I informed your Excellency when we first reached Petersburg, I was doubtful of your ability to hold the Weldon road so as to use it. The proximity of the enemy and his superiority of numbers rendered it possible for him to break the road at any time, and even if we could drive him from the position he now holds, we could not prevent him from returning to it or to some other point, as our strength is inadequate to guard the whole road. These considerations induced me to abandon the prosecution of the effort to dislodge the enemy.(1)
I think it is his purpose to endeavor to compel the evacuation of our present position by cutting off our supplies, and that he will not renew the attempt to drive us away by force. His late demonstration on the north side of the James was designed I think in part, to cause the withdrawal of troops from here to favor his movement against the road, but also to endeavor if possible to force his way to Richmond.(2) Being foiled in the attempt, he has brought back all the troops engaged in it, except those at Dutch Gap, and it is possible that they too will be withdrawn to this side of the James.(3) It behooves us to do everything in our power to thwart his new plan of reducing us by starvation, and all our energies should be directed to using to its utmost capacity our remaining line of communication with the south. The best officers of the Q M Dept should be selected to superintend the transportation of supplies by the Danville road and its Piedmont connections and all the roads south of it.
I shall do all in my power to procure some supplies by the Weldon road, bringing them by rail to Stony Creek, and thence by wagons. One train has already been sent out, and others are prepared to go. I think by energy and intelligence on the part of those charged with the duty, we will be able to maintain ourselves until the corn crop in Va comes to our relief, which it will begin to do to some extent in about a month. It should be our effort to provide not only for current wants but if practicable, to accumulate a surplus to provide against those occasional interruptions of the roads which the enemy’s policy justifies us in anticipating. I think this can be done with proper effort, and by the full use of all the rolling stock we can accumulate.
Our supply of corn is exhausted to-day, the small reserve accumulated in Richmond having been used. I am informed that all the corn that was brought from the south was transported to this place and Richmond, but the supply was not sufficient to enable the Q[arter] M[aster] department to accumulate a larger reserve. If this be true, it is desirable that steps be at once taken to increase the quantity brought over the southern roads, and if practicable, corn should be brought into Wilmington until our crop becomes available.
I trust that your Excellency will see that the most vigorous and intelligent efforts be made to keep up our supplies, and that all officers concerned in the work, be required to give their unremitting personal attention to their duty.(4)
With great respect
Your obt servt
R. E. Lee
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) Following the raid by Wilson’s cavalry and the Second and Sixth Corps, on June 21, Grant settled down to the formal investment of Petersburg. As steadily as possible, he advanced his lines opposite those held by the Confederates and was able, with persistence, to take positions in some instances not more than one hundred yards from the Confederate front. This fact probably suggested to Grant the possibility of mining the Confederate works. The method by which this was accomplished and the disastrous results to his army that followed are familiar to all readers. No new light on the battle of the Crater, which followed the explosion of the mine, is to be found in the De Renne collection. The details, therefore, need not be dwelt upon here. The next development in the campaign was the dispatch of Sheridan on his infamous raid through the Valley of Virginia,—one of the darkest blots on the military fame of Grant. As the Confederate commander sent Fitz Lee’s division of cavalry and Kershaw’s division of infantry after Sheridan, Grant decided to make a feint on Richmond “to prevent his [Lee’s] sending his troops away, and, if possible, to draw back those sent.” On August 13, accordingly, he sent two corps and one division north of the James and made a feebly futile attack on the Confederate lines. As Lee moved a part of his army across the river before he was aware that Grant’s forces had been driven back, the Federals decided to make a new assault on the Petersburg and Weldon railroad. This is the movement mentioned in this dispatch and stated in detail in O. R., 42, 1, index caption, Weldon railroad. The Fifth Federal Corps under Warren advanced quickly and with spirit, and struck the railroad at the Globe tavern. Here more than 1,000 of Warren’s men were captured by a flank movement by Heth’s division. On August 19, A. P. Hill, with two divisions, assailed Warren’s left while Mahone’s division fell on his right. After a bloody action, Warren retired to temporary works which he was able to hold against Hill. Two days later Grant sent more troops to tear up the railroad beyond the point where Warren had struck it. But the new forces, vigorously assailed by Hill and by the Confederate cavalry, broke under fire and fled precipitately. Grant accomplished his main purpose, in that he destroyed an important link in the railroad, but he paid for it at heavy cost. Lee, in the same way, lost veterans whom he could not replace.
(2) Grant, as we have seen, maintained that his movement on the north side of the James was merely a feint. On September 29, however, he did more serious work on the north side by his assault on Fort Harrison.
(3) The Federals were already back on the south side of the James.
- 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. 289-293 ↩