Nineteenth Annual Appomattox CH / Longwood U. Civil War Seminar

Save the date.  The Nineteenth Annual Civil War Seminar, hosted by Appomattox Court House National Historic Park and Longwood University, is on Saturday, February 3, 2018 at Jarman Auditorium on the Longwood University campus, Farmville, Virginia.

Appomattox Court House NHP will post details on their event page, but from the flyer distributed by Longwood University:

  • 8:30 a.m.          Doors open
  • 9:00 a.m.          Introduction by Dr. David Coles
  • 9:10 a.m.          Gary W. Gallager –  Robert E. Lee Generalship: Politics, Public Morale, and Confederate Prospects for Victory

The quality of Robert E. Lee’s generalship has prompted considerable debate since the 1970s.  This lecture will assess critiques of Lee as a parochial Virginian who failed to see the larger strategic picture, waged too many costly battles, never came to terms with the impact of recent military technology, and might have shortened, rather than lengthened, the life of the Confederacy.

  • 10:15 a.m.        Ralph Peters – Leaders Known, Leaders Forgotten: Command and Character in the Civil War

Explores the various styles of leadership on the battlefield and in high command, with special attention to the interactions of character, personal background, generational issues and talent. What are the consistencies and contradictions of successful battlefield leadership?  How often did personal relationships determine outcomes? Are there lessons for today, or is leadership different now? Discussion will focus on commanders from Grant and Lee to Jackson, Hooker, Sheridan, Gordon, Stuart, O.O. Howard and Carl Schurz, with various “honorable mentions.”

  • 11:30 a.m.        Edwin C. Bearss – Recollections of Appomattox

Reflections that delve into not only some historical aspects of Appomattox, but also personal reflections on attending the 100th, 125th, and 150th Anniversary events.

  • 12:30                 Lunch
  • 1:45 p.m.          Judith Giesberg –  Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality

This talk will explore the Civil War origins of the anti-pornography legislation by taking a look at the impetus behind a February 1865 law.  Making use of the wartime letters and diaries of a number of Union soldiers, the lecture considers soldiers’ own experiences with period erotica. What did they have access to, read, circulate? And, what did these materials mean to them? The Civil War was a turning point for the influential rise of postwar anti-vice campaigns.  These also included laws against contraceptives and abortion, newly entrenched legal regulations of marriage, and ever broader social purity initiatives around sexuality.

  •  2:45 p.m.        John W. Montcastle – When War Came This Way: The Woman’s War

The Civil War in Virginia brought women untold challenges, crushing hardships, and great pain. But the conflict which often dashed their hopes for the future also spurred women to step into roles previously denied them. Then, they made significant contributions to their families, their communities, and their state.  When war came this way, women achieved a reputation for sacrifice, selfless service, and leadership that inspires us still.

No reservations necessary.  Signs will be posted on the Longwood University Campus.  For directions to the campus go to  For more information contact Dr. David Coles at 434-395-2220 or Patrick Schroeder at 434-352-8987, Ext. 232.

This seminar is always a favorite of mine.  As welcome as a cup of coffee and a warm fireplace as it comes in mid-winter.  I plan to attend and hope to see you there.  But if you are unable to, I’ll be on Twitter providing some of the highlights.


Robert E. Lee: Good, Bad and Human

For your consideration:

In Memory of Robert E. Lee Marker

The photo is from a Historical Marker Database entry, by my late friend Mike Stroud.  I might make the case this is more a “monument,” but the opening line says “in Memory of….” so maybe we put it in the memorial column.

Regardless of how we categorize the object, there is a story to tell here.  And it is one of a positive contribution to the community by a historical figure – one Robert E. Lee.

In short, a problem developed in front of St. Louis in the 1830s. A shift to the river channel caused the city’s harbor to silt up.  Unchecked, that would isolate the city from commerce, the Gateway to the West would become just another bypassed river town, and steamboats would ply their trade somewhere else.  City officials used their political clout to secure the services of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who sent a First Lieutenant named Robert E. Lee (along with Second Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, but now I’m name dropping, at the expense of brevity).

The core problem was with Bloody Island, laying opposite St. Louis.  The river was slipping to the east side of that island, leaving more sediment on the Missouri side.  Lee’s solution was to let the river do the bulk of the work. He proposed a series of dikes and revetments that would entice the river to push to the west channel and thus clear out the sand bars deposited in front of St. Louis.

MapNo3StLouisLee(Map source:  Birmingham Public Library, Digital Collections)

Lee’s plan was never completely adopted.  Political influence prevented the dike construction on the north (upstream) end of Bloody Island.  But on the dike on the south end was enough.  The river soon gouged out a deep channel close to the Missouri shoreline.  The City of St. Louis continued to prosper.  And Lee was their hero.

Of course, one great irony here –  Lee had ensured St. Louis would be a thriving center of commerce and industry that would later support the Federal war effort in the west… twenty something years later.

A lesser sidebar, with all those trivial connections we enjoy- Lee’s efforts saved Bloody Island as one of those of those “in between” locations where laws were loosely enforced.  The island remained a favored spot for dueling.  On September 22, 1842, James Shields dueled Abraham Lincoln, with cavalry sabers, there on Bloody Island. It turned out a bloodless duel with both parties agreeing to a truce.

Lee did other work along the Mississippi to improve navigation, but the solution at St. Louis had the most impact.  And that impact was not forgotten.  Moving forward to 1977, the memorial shown above was placed on the waterfront, aptly in front of the Gateway Arch.  Moved a few feet in recent years, the memorial now sits between a bike trail and Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard.

But here we stand today, with a lot of talk lately about Robert E. Lee’s legacy and its place of prominence in our cultural landscape.  There can be no distancing of Lee from the Confederacy.  And by that connection, there should be no quibbling over Lee’s connection to slavery.  We cannot pretend Lee’s hands were not sullied in the matter. He was a direct participant in the system, benefited from the system, and fought to preserve that system.  Regardless of what he may, or may not, have personally felt, Lee served a country, and thereby a cause, that defined slavery as a necessary institution.

Yet, does that become the only factor in assessment of Robert E. Lee? Do we only measure him with the letters R-A-C-I-S-T?

Or, are there other factors to consider in the net assessment of Lee?  We have a preponderance of evidence that says he was a capable military leader.  He was a capable school administrator, at a time when Washington University needed one.  And, with respect to the Mississippi River at St. Louis, we can say he was a good public engineer (I’ve been known to debate his skill as a military engineer, but we shall table that for today).  Beyond that, at the personal level, we have many vignettes that indicate Lee possessed many admirable qualities… at a personal level.  None of which, of course, can, should, or would overshadow the connections Lee had to the system of slavery.   Yet these facets to the man do tell us he was a human being, just like the rest of us.  Maybe even more human than some of us.  (And certainly not the “Marble Man”.)

In his four volume biography of Lee, historian Douglas Southall Freeman closed:

That is all. There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.

Far be it for me to disagree with Freeman, who probably knew more about Lee than anyone save Lee himself. But I must say we cannot close the story of Robert E. Lee, simply looking out the windows.  He’s a complex figure, mixing good with bad, distasteful with the honorable, and repulsive with attractive.  And there’s a lot of mystery left to explore.

Then again, we can well say that about any figure we are apt to meet in history…or out on the street today.

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.

A Host to the Generals: Farley at Brandy Station

Today (Sunday, if you are reading this late because I am posting it late!) I assisted with a tour of the Brandy Station Battlefield, led by my friend Clark “Bud” Hall. As with many of the tours, Hall brought the group to this battlefield house:

The house is Farley.  I’ve mentioned it a few times before. It stands between the Old Winchester Turnpike (which only exists as a trace today) and the Hazel River.   Almost directly north was Wellford’s Ford, a crossing of note with much activity during the war.   With those terrain features close by, Farley saw more than its share of wartime activity.

The photo above was taken during the Winter Encampment of 1864.  At that time, Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps headquarters were in those tents.  The house also appears in other wartime photos, particularly with Sedgwick and staff posing for the photographer.

But these were not the only “dignitaries” to visit Farley during the war.  In fact, they were “late comers.”  As Hall has often repeated, most every senior officer of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac visited Farley at some point during the war.  For example, on the day after the battle of Brandy Station, Major-General J.E.B. Stuart moved his headquarters to Farley.   General Robert E. Lee visited him there.

During the Federal stay in the Winter of 1864, Major-General George Meade visited on several occasions.  One of those was occasioned by a visit by members of the Russian Navy.  When Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant came east, he was also entertained at Farley (and reportedly never removed his hat while indoors). So you might say Farley was the place to see and be seen.

With all those important visitors, I always wonder what this doorway might have witnessed:


And how many walked the hallways:


Sherman’s March, April 12, 1865: “A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won”

On April 12, 1865, a telegram from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant arrived to inform Major-General William T. Sherman about General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Sherman congratulated Grant and added, “The terms you have given Lee are magnanimous and liberal.  Should Johnston follow Lee’s example I shall of course grant the same.”

As Sherman’s army group advanced on Raleigh, North Carolina, that city was not his primary objective.  It was a waypoint to be met, for sure.  But his real objective was General Joseph E. Johnston’s army.  Sherman wanted to corner Johnston, much as had been done to Lee three days earlier.  Sherman stressed that objective in instructions to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, sent late-night on April 11. After warning Kilpatrick to use standard map references (for location reporting), Sherman went on to describe the location of Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton’s force:

I don’t think Hampton has 2,000 cavalry with him, and this is your chance. I will push all the column straight on Raleigh. I don’t care about Raleigh now, but want to defeat and destroy the Confederate army; therefore you may run any risk. Of course, don’t break the railroad except to the rear (west) of Johnston, as we want the rails up to Raleigh. General Wilson has taken Selma and is threatening Montgomery. He has whipped Red Jackson twenty-seven miles from Selma, and at Selma knocked Forrest all to pieces. Rebel papers report Forrest wounded in three places; Abe Buford to defend Montgomery with citizens; Dick Taylor ran westward from Selma; many cooped up in Mobile.

All of this designed to prod the cavalry commander to bold action!

Sherman’s plan for April 12 was to advance the Left Wing, Major-General Henry Slocum, on the direct roads to Raleigh.  The Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, would advance on the east side of the Neuse River but prepare crossing points to flank any Confederate position.  And the Center Wing, Major-General John Schofield, would actually advance to the left and behind the Left Wing, prepared to flank any opposition.  Kilpatrick was instructed to fall upon the retreating Confederates and disrupt their withdrawal.  A very typical marching arrangement for Sherman, matching patterns seen from Georgia all the way to North Carolina.


To make this advance possible, five of Sherman’s corps had to cross the Neuse River.  Only the Tenth Corps and the Cavalry Division, on the far left, were over that watercourse.  One more river to cross.

The Left Wing had two pontoon bridges across at Smithfield by morning.  Major-General Joseph Mower advanced the Twentieth Corps on the lower bridge, while Major-General Jefferson C. Davis crossed the Fourteenth Corps on the upper bridge.  The Left Wing met only fleeting rear guards during the advance of the day.   Sherman accompanied the Twentieth Corps to setup headquarters at Gully’s Store.

The Right Wing had more trouble with maps than Confederates on April 12.  Scouting the lead of the advance, the 29th Missouri (Mounted) Infantry reached Battle’s Bridge. Colonel Joseph Gage reported the bridge there destroyed but, “The river at that point is about thirty yards wide,” and the roads were good for the advance.  The problem for the advance lay in an inaccuracy of the Federal maps.  Howard reported to Sherman around mid-day, “The roads are different from map. Watson’s Mill is at Pineville, and General Logan reports but one road from Folk’s Bridge across.” To ease the congestion of two corps passing through Pinveville, Major-General John Logan doubled up the Fifteenth Corps and chose a fork of the road to the right.  Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps would manage with side roads where possible.

The Twenty-third Corps of the Center Wing advanced to Turner’s Bridge on April 12.  The march was more administrative than tactical.  On the far side, the Tenth Corps reported encountering some Confederate cavalry, but otherwise the advance was conducted at an easy pace.  The Center Wing then reformed south of, and to the rear of, the Left Wing.

Perhaps the most interesting note of the day from the Center Wing was a circular issued by Major-General Jacob Cox, Twenty-third Corps:

Since we left Goldsborough there has been a constant succession of house burning in rear of this command. This has never before been the case since the corps was organized, and the prospect of speedy peace makes this more than ever reprehensible. Division commanders will take the most vigorous measures to put a stop to these outrages, whether committed by men of this command or by stragglers from other corps. Any one found firing a dwelling-house, or any building in close proximity to one, should be summarily shot. A sentinel may be left by the advance division at each inhabited house along the road, to be relieved in succession from the other divisions as they come up, those left by the rear division reporting to the train guard and rejoining after the next halt.

To the left of the Federal advance, Kilpatrick’s cavalry swept forward, but not quite as Sherman desired.  Kilpatrick reported,

I have had some hard fighting t0-day, from Swift Creek to this point on the railroad, six miles from Raleigh. I have intercepted Hampton and am now driving him in toward the river.  I hope to either capture or force him across the river.

Kilpatrick noted the Confederate force was in full retreat.  He asked permission to advance into Raleigh, but “I can do no better than drive directly in his rear as he marches nearly as fast as I do.”  Sherman would give Kilpatrick permission to press into Raleigh, but preferred Johnston “go toward Greensborough” and thus asked Kilpatrick to “cut across the rear of his column, right and left.”  The potential of the situation seemed to elude Kilpatrick.  At the same time, reports from the Confederate cavalry do not indicate any great “pressing” as Kilpatrick described.

Instead, the main worry of Hampton’s was the passage of a delegation from the North Carolina Governor, Zebulon Vance.  Early in the day, Vance informed Lieutenant-General William Hardee that he planned to send emissaries to Sherman proposing a suspension of hostilities.  Vance was playing with several loose ends. While proposing a truce “touching the final termination of the existing war,” to the Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, Vance assured his intentions were note “to do anything subversive.”

Vance’s delegation went by train out of Raleigh that afternoon.  It was first intercepted by Hampton’s cavalry.  And then overtaken by Kilpatrick’s cavalry.  From there, the train rolled on to Sherman’s headquarters.  Sherman’s conversation with the delegation ran late into the evening, and he detained them overnight.  They would depart the next morning, under flag of truce, to Raleigh with Sherman’s counter-proposal.

Vance’s aim in all this was to preserve the safety of Raleigh, lest it be treated as Milledgeville or Columbia.  But his efforts were largely overtaken by events.  As the Confederates withdrew, looting and lawlessness broke out in the city.  The number of provost troops detailed were insufficient.  Vance himself fled west, leaving the state capitol to be ransacked.  So Sherman’s response to him arrived the next morning to find no recipient.

In the Federal camps that evening, Special Field Orders No. 54 was read.  This was the official announcement of Lee’s surrender on April 9th.  Sherman closed that with encouragement to his troops, “A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won, and our Government stands regenerated after four long years of bloody war.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page …; Part III, Serial 100, pages 172, 178, 180, 183, 186-7, 188-9, 792.)

April 10, 1865: Joseph Johnston’s Confederacy


The Civil War did not end at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.  A significant part of the Civil War – that of the military campaigns in Virginia – came  to a close that day. But the Confederacy, and thus the war, remained on April 10.  And keep in mind what was the Confederacy in reality at that time?  As had been the case since Major-General William T. Sherman cut through Georgia, the Confederacy was for all practical purposes the Confederate Army as it stood, where ever it stood, as an organized force.   Any discussion about how many rebellious state governments might still claim stars on the flag or how many places were not under Federal garrisons were moot points.  The Confederate government could only exist where its army stood.  And with the events at Appomattox on April 9, the Confederate government had contact with only one army – that under General Joseph E. Johnston.

I alluded to “Lee’s Confederacy” last month.  At this point 150 years ago, the weight of that burden fell to Johnston.  And his “Confederacy” was something like this:


Again, as with the assessment of Lee’s reach and grasp as of March 1865, we have to consider what Johnston could call upon.  If the resource, be that supplies or military units, were not close to a railroad, then Johnston could not call upon the resource to meet any immediate need.  Nor could President Jefferson Davis hope to leverage any forces outside Johnston’s reach, to exact any circumstantial change to the inevitable fall.

There were certainly military formations scattered across the south from South Carolina to Texas that remained in the field.  But neither Davis or Johnston had the ability to control those.  Even the “pocket” of Confederate forces from Bristol to Lynchburg, having just responded to Major-General George Stoneman’s raid to Christiansburg, were out of position to provide support to Johnston.

From his headquarters in Smithfield, on April 9, Johnston ordered the destruction of railroad bridges over the Roanoke River at Gaston and Weldon.  This move was just as much intended to block any move south by Federals operating in Virginia as it was to delay a move by Sherman’s forces to march north to join them.  With that act, save for the station at Danville, Johnston had no “influence” into Virginia.

On April 10, a series of reports trickled into Smithfield from Confederate cavalry.  At 7:10 p.m. that day, Major-General Joseph Wheeler reported, “Enemy advanced toward Smithfield to-day.  They say they are going to Raleigh.”

As I mentioned when discussing “Lee’s Confederacy” in March, the last acts of the Confederacy would play out within that shaded area.  But at this point 150 years ago, one of the main characters in the play – Robert E. Lee – was absent from the stage.  Johnston, the only Confederate commander then standing center stage, inherited a sphere of influence that extended only across the center of North Carolina.

There’s a lot I need to “catch up” on for my sesquicentennial time line – Stoneman, Sherman, and Potter…. but the story line is well known.  That sphere of influence would be cut, parted, and split by many hands.

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.)