April 4, 1865: “I have no communication from General Lee since Sunday” as the Confederate high command splinters

On April 4, 1865, General Robert E. Lee lead the retreating forces from Richmond and Petersburg into Amelia Court House. There, Confederates found empty box cars along the Richmond & Danville Railroad.  A staff mistake of the highest order had deprived the hard-pressed Confederates of supplies.  Lee was forced to appeal to the local populace for supplies.

Why couldn’t he simply telegraph down the railroad line and order the trains up?  Well, that same day, Federal cavalry reached Jetersville and Burkeville, captured the railroad stations and severed the telegraph… and Lee’s life-line. Lee would later attempt to re-establish communications by way of telegraph lines out of Farmville and Crew, supplemented by couriers.  In the modern military we are taught to rate communications as “positive” as defined where the flow is bi-directional, reliable, and responsive.  As of April 4, 1865, Lee’s communications were not positive in tone, content, or rating.

Without “positive” communication links, Lee’s Confederacy shrank to a few counties in Virginia.  And outside of that confined area, the Confederate high command struggled to get a grasp on the situation.  In Danville, President Jefferson Davis issued a message aimed to rally what was left of the Confederacy.

Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating from the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in the case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve.  Let us but will it, and we are free; and who, in the light of the past, dare doubt your purpose in the future!

Yes, to the public, Davis put on a good face as any political figure might. But to his remaining military subordinates with “positive” communication links, Davis inquired what could be done.  Exchanging messages with General P.G.T. Beauregard, in Greensborough, Davis wanted to confirm the rail lines south of Danville were in order.

Please give me any reliable information you have as to the movements of the enemy and dispositions to protect the Piedmont Railroad. I have no communication from General Lee since Sunday.

Beauregard responded at around 3:30 p.m. (around the same time telegraph operators reported the loss of communications to Burkeville, showing history has some rhythmic resonances):

See telegrams of yesterday and to-day to General [H.W.] Walker. I consider railroad from Chester to Danville safe, at present.  Will send to-day 600 more men to the later point. Twenty-five hundred more could be sent, if absolutely needed, but they are returned men of various commands of the Army of Tennessee, temporarily stopped and organized [at Greensborough]. General Johnston has ordered here some cavalry, which I have diverted from Hillsborough to Danville. No news from Lee or Johnston. Please answer.

Major-General George Stoneman’s raid indeed had an effect on Confederate movements.  And arguably, it was on the forces for which it was designed to impress – those defending North Carolina’s railroads.  And in their wake, Stoneman’s raiders sowed confusion, as Davis noted in his response to Beauregard:

Your telegram of to-day received. The reports in regard to raiders very contradictory. Best evidence indicates that they have not been at Madison. The cavalry you have ordered here will be of special value at this time, and with the infantry en route will probably serve the immediate necessity.  Have sent a courier to General Lee, from whom I have no communication.

Beauregard also tried to reach Lee, sending a report on Stoneman’s progress to both Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston in Smithfield, North Carolina:

Stoneman’s command is reported to have crossed Yadkin at Jonesville and Rockford on 2d instant, p.m., and moved toard Dobson and Mount Airy, destination probably Taylorsville.  From there he may continue to Lynchburg, if he is protecting flank of column reported moving along Virginia and Tennessee Railroad; or from Taylorsville he may march on Danville.

The assessment, while somewhat dated, did match well to Stoneman’s movements.  But Beauregard could not be sure Stoneman was not turning on Danville.  So he dispatched Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry – about a third of the organized cavalry in North Carolina.  But Johnston would countermand that order, reasoning, “It is too late for Wheeler to attempt to reach Danville.”  But Beauregard’s and Johnston’s telegrams crossed each other in transit, forcing Wheeler to inquire for clarification.  The following morning, Johnston would clarify further:

Events in Virginia will make Sherman move. Wheeler is, therefore, absolutely necessary here.

At that point, with Lee outside coverage of positive – meaning responsive and regular – communication means, the control of the armies of the Confederacy devolved to subordinate commanders.  No one could bring aid to Lee in his retreat.  Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia, and other troops evacuated from Richmond-Petersburg were on their own.  Somewhat contrary to Davis’ public statement, the Confederate armies were forced to move in response to the Federal advances into an ever contracting Confederacy.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, page 1383; Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 750-1 and 755.)