Through much of the war, General Robert E. Lee focused on affairs in Virginia. Operations in other theaters affected his operations, but other than offering advice, he was not responsible for the conduct of the war at those other points. That changed in January 1865 when Lee was made commander of all the Confederate armies. Furthermore, the operational space over which the Confederate Army could exercise control had contracted in size. While places from the Rio Grand to Mobile to Augusta remained in Confederate hands, authorities in Richmond could only effectively wield the forces in the Carolinas and Virginia. Major-General William T. Sherman was now only 300 miles from the trenches of Petersburg as of February 19, 1865. So now Lee had to pay attention to him.
On February 19, Lee sent a letter to Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge, in regard to the South Carolina front… and it was not an upbeat message:
Sir: The accounts received to-day from South and North Carolina are unfavorable. General Beauregard reports from Winnsborough that four corps of the enemy are advancing on that place, tearing up the Charlotte railroad, and that they will probably reach Charlotte by the 24th, and before he can concentrate his troops there. He states General Sherman will doubtless move thence on Greensborough, Danville, and Petersburg, or unite with General Schofield at Raleigh or Weldon.
General Bragg reports that General Schofield is now preparing to advance from New Berne to Goldsborough, and that a strong expedition is moving against the Weldon railroad at Rocky Mount. He says that little or no assistance can be received from the State of North Carolina; that exemptions and reorganizations under late laws have disbanded the State forces, and that they will not be ready for the field for some time….
On the map, this appeared as of a set of pincers were about to prune off South Carolina and a portion of North Carolina. This would drop the floor out from beneath the defenses of Petersburg and Richmond.
Lee went on to dismiss Beauregard’s assessment of Sherman’s possible movements:
I do not see how Sherman can make the march anticipated by General Beauregard; but he seems to have everything his own way, which is calculated to cause apprehension.
Lee was right on two counts here. Sherman would only make Camden by February 24. However, in defense of Beauregard’s speculation, given Sherman’s pace earlier in the campaign, the Federals could have made the North Carolina border had the marches been sustained. But, as Lee indicated, Sherman was not particularly concerned about adding to the list of captured cities.
What Lee needed the most was an able field commander to lead efforts against Sherman… and he found Beauregard wanting at that particular moment in time:
General Beauregard does not say what he proposes or what he can do. I do not know where his troops are, or on what lines they are moving. His dispatches only give movements of the enemy. He has a difficult task to perform under present circumstances, and one of his best officers (General Hardee) is incapacitated by sickness. I have also heard that his own health is indifferent, though he has never so stated. Should his strength give way there is no one on duty in the department that could replace him, nor have I anyone to send there. General J. E. Johnston is the only officer whom I know who has the confidence of the army and people, and if he was ordered to report to me I would place him there on duty.
J.E. Johnson! (Indeed, this would become an often overlooked plank of the “Lost Cause” interpretation that emerged in the immediate post-war – in that Hood had failed, and if Johnson had only been kept in charge, or returned to command earlier….) Others had called for Johnson’s return. Now it was Lee who put forward the recommendation to the War Department. Within three days, Johnson had the job.
But what Lee could not recommend on the 19th was a plan to counter Sherman. What he could offer was something more akin to a vision:
It is necessary to bring out all our strength, and, I fear, to unite our armies, as separately they do not seem able to make head against the enemy. Everything should be destroyed that cannot be removed out of the reach of Generals Sherman and Schofield. Provisions must be accumulated in Virginia, and every man in all the States must be brought out. I fear it may be necessary to abandon all our cities, and preparation should be made for this contingency.
Lee’s suggestion, closing this letter, embodied a strategy of survival for the Confederacy. Earlier in the month, leaders directly opposing Sherman outlined their plan to delay the Federal advance, with the hope something would turn upon the peace talks. It was a “play out the clock” plan, if I may borrow an analogy from our modern times. Lee’s suggestion – and let us recognize the idea was one shared by other officers at the same time, not necessarily originating with Lee – was the only hope to secure any outcome short of complete surrender lay with the survival of the Confederate Army.
Cities, and with that the civilian population, might fall. But if the Army survived, the Confederacy was still in being. Therein lay a paradoxical conclusion. The Confederate Army could no longer produce battlefield victory to secure Confederate success. Yet Confederate success as things stood in February 1865, even if it were some meager concession, depended almost completely upon the continued existence of the army… a standing army in being.
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1044.)