General Robert E. Lee spent his first winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia confronting the Federals along the Rappahannock River. For support, in theory if not in very efficient practice, he could call upon the resources of the Confederacy from as far away as Mississippi, if not beyond to the Rio Grande.
During Lee’s second winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he could still call upon support from places as far away as Alabama, Florida, or, even parts of Mississippi. Responding to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Lee drew troops from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee (where Lieutenant-General James Longstreet had wintered). Most importantly, Lee could still draw resources from large areas of Virginia, to include much of the Shenandoah Valley.
Just a few weeks into the winter of 1865, Lee was promoted to command of all the Confederate armies. More than at any other time in the war, Lee needed strategic mobility to concentrate combat power and supplies to meet the needs at the front. However, given the pace at which Federal operations came in March and April 1865, realistically Lee could only plan to wield resources (manpower, material, or supplies) that were close to railroad depots. A day or two for rail transportation was cutting things close. Anything more than a few days march or wagon ride from a working (stress working) railroad was out of Lee’s reach, and thus of little help. Not to diminish the activities that took place in that time period in other theaters, but for Lee’s needs those Confederate forces may as well been in Siberia than Texas or Alabama.
So what did Lee’s reach look like at the end of March? Here’s my rough depiction:
The rose-colored section is that reach. You see that just past the South Carolina line, Sherman had destroyed the infrastructure. Not to say that troops or supplies from South Carolina were inaccessible. Rather that would be a question of time and effort. Neither of which the Confederacy had in abundance. The one remaining transportation artery was a triangle of railroads connecting Richmond-Petersburg with Raleigh and Charlotte, with key junctures at Salisbury, Greensboro, and Danville. And no seaports.
And the situation was bound to get worse into April. I’ve depicted one of the next “blows” to fall 150 years ago this week on the left side of the map – Major-General George Stoneman’s raid out of Tennessee, which would disrupt the already teetering transportation system. Only a matter of days before the major forces started moving on the other side of the map.
As the month of March 1865 came to a close, Lee’s reach, and thus ability to react to those Federal advances, was severely limited. In more ways than one, Lee’s actions would decide the fate of the Confederacy, determine how the Civil War would close, and, if we step up to the big podium, decide several important questions about the future of the United States as things sat in 1865. All of that would play out within the rose-colored section labeled “Lee’s Confederacy.”
At the start of the war, the seceded states included over/around 775,000 square miles across eleven states. For all practical purposes, at the close of March 1865, Lee’s Confederacy was just 40,000 square miles, mostly in two states.