Petersburg as “Lee’s Keep”- in the grand strategic sense

Another great weekend at Longwood University for the Civil War Seminar (hosted by the university and the Appomattox NHP).  For those who could not attend, CSPAN was on site recording for the morning talks. I’m not sure when those will be rebroadcast, so “consult your local listings.”

Unfortunately, the CSPAN crew did not record the two afternoon sessions.  I say unfortunately because those two blocks were the most thought provoking… at least from my chair.  The “lost” sessions were Dr. Richard J. Sommers with “Enduring Lessons in Leadership from the Siege of Petersburg” and William C. Davis on “Lincoln and Davis as Commanders in Chief.”  I tried to work in as many of the soundbytes and highlights as possible by way of Twitter.  But that cannot replace the full impact of the delivery.  Which… is why I always encourage folks to attend these events in person!

One point from Sommers’ talk that I grabbed and considered on the ride home came from this talking point:

This is not, for those who have studied the 1864 campaigns with any depth, a new interpretation.  However, there were some fine points that Sommers’ introduced that caused me to associate some other details.  And that gave me a new perspective from which to “square” the grand strategic view in my head.  Consider a few of the ancillary points Sommers’ raised:

  • Petersburg was not a traditional siege.  No advancing parallels or batteries of reduction.  Rather Grant attempted to poke, prod, and flank Lee out of the fortifications.  So the actions more closely resembled open field battle than siege warfare. Again, nothing that most readers would say is “new” in the mix.  We know this already.
  • Lee didn’t opt to stay in Petersburg-Richmond due to sound military strategy, but rather because he was “told” to do so.  And, again, nothing new here.  Just throw it in the pot for now to mix with the other parts.
  • The siege of Petersburg prolonged the life of the Army of Northern Virginia by nine months.  Thus an “army in being” was preserved even if at the lower echelons the experience wasted the units.
  • And toward that point, it is said that Lee knew the war was lost as soon as his army took to the trenches… but in justification it is said that Lee didn’t have any alternatives.
  • Alternatives?  Well, Lee was to some degree just following orders.  But we cannot simply commit Lee to that fate saying he was just a good soldier following orders. Lee did have some influence on Confederate national policy and objectives, to be sure.  And we must assess that Lee was in agreement with many of those national polices and agree with the objectives, even if that meant hardship for … and eventual destruction of… his army.
  • However… it was not until near the very end of the war that Lee was granted full control of the Confederate armies (plural) so as to fully enact those national policies and objectives.

So… circle back to a map I ran during the sesquicentennial:


As stated in the original post, the rose colored area was a rough depiction of Lee’s reach – that area in which Lee could expect to influence directly.  As we know, there were many more Confederate troops under arms elsewhere across the South. But Lee had no way of directing them within a timely, responsive manner.  So he could not wield whatever power lay outside that reach.

We might back the time-line up to November 1864 and contemplate what reach the  Confederate “national command authority” (in other words, Davis and his counsel) had in the days prior to Sherman’s march out of Atlanta…. better still, what the Confederates held as of the day after Lincoln’s reelection, which I would submit would be a more important strategic turning point for several reasons.  At that time the rose colored swath of the map would extend to include South Carolina, most of Georgia,  Alabama, and parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, not to mention a larger portion of North Carolina.  A larger area, with larger commitments.

And let’s back that time-line even further back to the summer of 1864.  Such would open the swath of reach to include Atlanta, before its fall, and some important portions of Virginia… namely the Shenandoah Valley and approaches to Richmond.

So… at that time, nine months or so before the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, what was the “plan” as established by the Confederate national command authority?  Well… in a nutshell… the objective was to survive, with the most likely alternative to be taking advantage of war-weariness of the North.  And with that as the strategic plan, the most important resources left to the Confederacy was not territory or cities, but rather having armies in the field.  Yes, armies in the field to fight more campaigns and keep the Federals at bay a little longer.  But more importantly, armies that were a bargaining chip or leverage, with which some considerations might be exacted from those in Washington.

In order for the “bargaining chip” strategy to work for the Confederacy, several things had to work in their favor.  Obviously, the armies had to remain “in being.”  Armies on campaign have a tendency, given combat and attrition, to lose some of that “being.”  Though there were some forays, notably Jubal Early’s run on Washington or Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri, mostly these served the point – the armies in being had to be reckoned with, while disrupting and delaying ongoing Federal operations.


That leads to another factor that had to work in the Confederate’s favor.  They needed some pause or delay in Federal operations. The longer the armies in being remained, the more value those assets had within any peace talks.  And as mentioned above, Early’s and Price’s operations certainly caused delays as Federal forces were reallocated to deal with threats.

But there were other ways to bring the Federals to a pause.  Consider what we have discussed recently about fortifications, specifically the notion of a “keep” within the works.  Yes, the keep was the last line of defense within the fort, but it was not a place where the defender went to die when making that last stand.  Rather it was a place from which the defender could force the attacker to pause.  And within that pause, the defender might use the leverage of a “garrison in being” to exact some compensation, hopefully an armistice with honor.

Now translate that to the strategic level.  Maybe we might say General Joseph E. Johnston was transforming Atlanta into a “keep” of sorts.  Some might argue that Johnston fought a series of actions moving from “keep” to “keep” on the way to Atlanta.  But, of course, we know that Johnston’s replacement opted for a more aggressive option which might be called, from a strategic level, a sortie against the attacker.  Heck, we might even carry that notion forward to consider General John B. Hood’s Tennessee Campaign one grand sortie in that light.

Circling back to Virginia, the analogy to the “keep” fits better when applied to Petersburg. With crossing of the James River and initial thrust at Petersburg, Grant had place Federal boots on Richmond’s parapets, strategically speaking.  And at that point, the trenches that ran from Petersburg to Richmond became, at the strategic level, a “keep” from which Lee hoped to exact a pause.  And that was a nine month long pause.

The flip side of that successful “keep” at Petersburg was the corresponding failure to enact a similar pause elsewhere on the map.  All efforts to delay Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas came to naught.  Savannah, nor Charleston, nor Columbia were effectively transformed into keeps.  Indeed, we might say heavy rains did more to slow Sherman than anything the Confederates attempted by arms.

All this said… I submit one way to view the last nine months of the Confederacy is one of keeping, or not keeping, keeps.  Conversely, we might view the Federal operations in that same span of time as one of occupying outer works and turning keeps.  All of which served to slice and reduce that rose colored area in which the “armies in being” of the Confederacy might be wielded.


One thought on “Petersburg as “Lee’s Keep”- in the grand strategic sense

  1. Craig: I was also there. I fond Ralph Peters presentation on the Human Side of Civil War Leadership refreshing. His preamble on what is “modern” helpful in looking at our subjects as they lived and fought 155 years ago. Helpful to me and potentially impactful as I write future blog posts.

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