HDQRS C[onfederate] S[tates] Armies
26th March 1865
His Exc[ellenc]y Jefferson Davis
President C[onfederate] States
My dispatch of yesterday [March 25, 1865] to the Secretary of War will have informed you of the attack made upon a portion of the enemy’s lines around Petersburg, and the result which attended it.1 I have been unwilling to hazard any portion of the troops in an assault upon fortified positions, preferring to reserve their strength for the struggle which must soon commence, but I was induced to assume the offensive from the belief that the point assailed could be carried without much loss, and the hope that by the seizure of the redoubts in the rear of the enemy’s main line, I could sweep along his entrenchments to the south, so that if I could not cause their abandonment, Genl Grant would at least be obliged so to curtail his lines, that upon the approach of Gen Sherman, I might be able to hold our position with a portion of the troops, and with a select body unite with Gen Johnston and give him battle. If successful, I would then be able to return to my position, and if unsuccessful I should be in no worse condition, as I should be compelled to withdraw from James River if I quietly awaited his approach. But although the assault upon the fortified works at Hair’s Hill was bravely accomplished, the redoubts commanding the line of entrenchments were found enclosed and strongly manned, so that an attempt to carry them must have been attended with great hazard, and even if accomplished, would have caused a great sacrifice of life in the presence of the large reserves which the enemy was hurrying into position I therefore determined to withdraw the troops, and it was in retiring that they suffered the greatest loss the extent of which has not yet been reported. I fear now it will be impossible to prevent a junction between Grant and Sherman, nor do I deem it prudent that this army should maintain its position until the latter shall approach too near. Gen. Johnston reports that the returns of his force of the 24th inst; gave his effective infantry thirteen thousand five hundred. He must therefore have lost, after his concentration at Smithfield about eight thousand men. This could hardly have resulted from the casualties of battle, and I fear must be the effect of desertion. Should this prove to be the case, I can not reasonably expect him to bring across the Roanoke more than ten thousand infantry, a force that would add so little strength to this army as not to make it more than a match for Sherman, with whom to risk a battle in the presence of Grant’s army, would hardly seem justifiable. Gen Johnston estimates Gen Sherman’s army, since its union with Schofield and the troops that were previously in N Carolina, at sixty thousand. I have no correct data upon which to form an estimate of the strength of Gen Grant’s army. Taking their own account, it would exceed a hundred thousand, and I fear it is not under eighty thousand. Their two armies united would therefore exceed ours by nearly a hundred thousand. If Gen Grant wishes to unite Sherman with him without a battle, the latter after crossing the Roanoke has only to take an easterly direction towards Sussex, while the former moving two days march towards Weldon, provided I moved out to intercept Sherman, would render it impossible for me to strike him without fighting both armies.
I have thought it proper to make the above statement to your Excellency of the condition of affairs, knowing that you will do whatever may be in your power to give relief.(1)
I am with great respect
Your obt servt
Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:
(1) This important letter supplements the meagre information given in the Official Records regarding the effect upon General Lee’s plan of the attempt on Fort Stedman. On the morning of the 25th General Gordon made the attack, the details of which are given in General Lee’s report of the same date to the Secretary of War, as follows (O. R., 46, 1, 382-83):
March 25, 1865.
At daylight this morning, General Gordon assaulted and carried enemy’s works at Hare’s Hill, captured 9 pieces of artillery, 8 mortars, between 500 and 600 prisoners, among them one brigadier-general and number of officers of lower grade. Enemy’s lines were swept away for distance of 400 or 500 yards to right and left, and two efforts made to recover captured works were handsomely repulsed; but it was found that the inclosed works in rear, commanding enemy’s main line, could only be taken at great sacrifice, and troops were withdrawn to original position. It being impracticable to bring off captured guns, owing to nature of ground, they were disabled and left. Our loss reported is not heavy. Among wounded is Brigadier-General Terry, flesh wound, and Brig. Gen. Phil Cook, in arm. All the troops engaged, including two brigades under Brigadier-General Ransom behaved most handsomely. The conduct of the sharpshooters of Gordon’s corps, who led assault, deserves the highest commendation. This afternoon there was skirmishing on the right between the picket-lines with varied success. At dark enemy held considerable portion of the line farthest in advance of our main works.
R. E. Lee.
Hon. J. C. Breckinridge,
Secretary of War.
It is not too much to say that this attack on Fort Stedman determined General Lee’s line of retreat from in front of Petersburg. Had he been able to shake Grant off, as he hoped, by this daring assault, Lee might possibly have withdrawn the greater part of his troops and joined Johnston. Whether or not such a movement would have even delayed the outcome may be questioned. At any event, the additions to Sherman’s army and the reported weakness of Johnston rendered such a move neither desirable nor practicable after the failure to take Fort Stedman. The letter here printed deserves careful reading as a genuine contribution to the strategy of these dark days. As Grant continued steadily to extend his flank, threatening Lee’s line of retreat, nothing remained but a withdrawal.
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Lee is here referring to the Battle of Fort Stedman, the last offensive action of the Army of Northern Virginia. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. 341-347 ↩