A Pivotal Moment for Robert E. Lee

(July 24, 2021) During the first thirteen months of the War Between the States Robert E. Lee did not command Confederate field troops. He was largely an advisor to the commanders of two small uncooperative armies in present-day West Virginia and later a special military consultant to President Jefferson Davis. In the second capacity he arranged to reinforce and unleash Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the latter’s legendary Shenandoah Valley Campaign on April 21, 1862.

Two weeks later General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew the largest Confederate army in Virginia from Yorktown under pressure from an even bigger Union army commanded by General George B. McClellan as the latter advanced his troops up the York-James peninsula toward Richmond. Under questioning from President Davis, Johnston explained that the Yankees had enveloped Yorktown with heavy siege guns that made the defensive position untenable. Thereafter, Johnston made a brief stand a Williamsburg designed to give his withdrawing troops time put distance between them and their pursuers. Beyond that he provided little information to explain his plans for resisting McClellan’s continuing advance. 

On 12 May he wrote Lee asking what plans had been made to supply his army should Richmond be evacuated.  As word of Johnston’s planless retreat spread, Richmond became gripped in panic. Even President Davis sent his family to Raleigh. Consequently, Davis summoned Lee to an emergency cabinet meeting on 14 May. Lee biographer Clifford Dowdy described the scene as follows:

As soon as Lee seated himself, Davis told him the meeting had been called to discuss the next line of defense after Richmond had been abandoned.

Richmond abandoned! Lee stared at the President as if he had not heard him correctly. Then, glancing at the silent men, Lee lost his famed composure. “But,” he said in a loud voice shaken with passion, “but Richmond must be defended.”

The power of his emotion filled the room and that is what the men remembered. That, more than the words, shook them out of their despair. 

If McClellan captured Richmond, even Johnston’s army could not be long maintained in the field. Yet, so general was the defeatism spread by Johnston’s planless retreat that only the passion of Lee’s conviction gave the President and cabinet the determination to defend the capital. 

Not until the last day of May when McClellan’s army was only six miles from Richmond, did General Johnston engage the enemy at the Battle of Seven Pines. Not only was the attack unsuccessful, but Johnston himself was badly injured. He was compelled to relinquish command and President Davis replaced him with General Lee. Thereafter, Union troops would not enter Richmond for three more years notwithstanding their superior numbers and resources and the mere 100 miles separating the capitals of the USA and CSA. 

When Lee assumed command, most Northerners had expected the Confederacy to soon collapse. Lee realized that he must attack McClellan before the latter got his siege guns deployed against the Richmond defenses. To recruit Jackson to the defense of Richmond he wrote Stonewall, “Unless McClellan can be driven out of his entrenchments, he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond.” Thereafter it would only be a matter of time before Richmond would need to be evacuated. But, from the Union perspective, the unexpected did happen. In a nearly continuous week of fighting starting on June 26, Lee’s smaller army relentlessly drove McClellan back twenty miles to a defensive redoubt on the James River under the protective guns of a Union naval flotilla.

Less than three months later Lee’s outnumbered force carried the war in the East from the doorstep of the Confederate capital at Richmond to the front porch of the Union capital at Washington. The reversal in Union morale was so severe that Attorney General Edward Bates quoted President Lincoln as saying he “felt almost ready to hang himself.”

You’ll find the rest of the story in The Confederacy at Flood Tide. 

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