General Lee’s Offensive Policy in the Campaign of 1864.1
It is a very popular error to speak of General Lee as acting on the defensive in the campaign of 1864, and of his “retreating” before General Grant. The truth is that from the day Grant crossed the Rapidan until (after losing nearly twice as many men as Lee had) he sat down to the siege of Petersburg-a position which he could have occupied at first without firing a gun or losing a man-Lee never made a move except to meet and fight the enemy, and that on the whole campaign he craved nothing so much as “an open field and a fair fight.” He again and again expressed himself to that effect, and always said that if the enemy were allowed to besiege Richmond the result would be a mere question of time.
The following letter to one of his corps commanders brings out clearly his views and purposes. If General Grant had not crossed the James and advanced on Petersburg, Lee would have attacked him in his works, and have tried on him the same tactics which proved so successful against McClellan in 1862. Of course no one can now tell certainly what the result would have been, but General Lee and his ragged veterans were confident of a splendid victory. The letter, however, speaks for itself:
HEAD-QUARTERS 12.30 P. M., June, 1864.
General,-I have received your note of 11 A. M. I am glad that you are able to make the disposition of the troops you propose, as it meets my views as expressed in a former note to you. Now that you have your troops in a line I hope you will strengthen it as much as possible, and hold it. I have little fear of your ability to maintain your position if our men do as they generally do. The time has arrived, in my opinion, when something more is necessary than adhering to lines and defensive positions. We shall be obliged to go out and prevent the enemy from selecting such positions as he chooses. If he is allowed to continue that course we shall at last be obliged to take refuge behind the works of Richmond and stand siege, which would be but a work of time.
We must be prepared to fight him in the field; to prevent his taking positions such as he desires, and I expect the co-operation of all the corps commanders in the course which necessity now will oblige us to pursue.
It is for this purpose that I desire the corps to be kept together, and
as strong as possible, and that our absentees may be brought forward and every attention given to refreshing and preparing the men for battle.
Their arms and ammunition should be looked to and cooked provisions provided ahead.
(Signed) R. E. LEE, General.
P. S.-I am anxious to get recommendations to fill the vacancies in the different commands in your corps.
R. E. L. (Signed)
- Lee, R. E. “General Lee’s Offensive Policy in the Campaign of 1864.” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 9, pp. 137-138 ↩