1864: “Checked The Progress Of The Enemy Towards Richmond”

The Commanding Gen takes pleasure in announcing to the Army the series of
successes which by the blessing of God, have recently been achieved by our arms. A part of the enemy’s force threatening the [Valley] of Virginia has been[illegible] by Gen Imboden’s and driven back by the Potomac, with the loss of their wagon train and a number of prisoners. Another body of the enemy under Gen Averill penetrated to the Va and Tennessee RailRoad at Dublin’s Depot, A portion of this force has been defeated by Genl WE Jones, who are in pursuit of the remainder.

The Army of Gen Banks which invaded western La, sustained a severe defeat at the hands of Gen Kirby Smith, and retreated to Alexandria with the loss of several thousand prisoners, thirty five pieces of artillery and a large number of wagons & some of the most formidable gunboats that accompanied the expedition and many transports have been destroyed by the enemy to [struck out word] them from capture, and Northern papers. I report that our troops have interrupted the navigation of Red River below Alexandria,

The expedition of Gen Steele into Western Arkansas has been driven back by Gen Price
who captured all his wagons and artillery. Only a small part of Gen Steele’s army has succeeded in reaching Little Rock.

The cavalry force sent by Gen Grant to attack Richmond has been repulsed and retreated towards the Peninsula and every demonstration of the enemy south of James River successfully repelled

The heroic valor of this Army, under the blessing of Almighty God has thus far checked the progress of the principal Army of the enemy towards Richmond, and inflicted upon it heavy loss.

Your country looks to you in your gallant struggle with confidence and hope. Encouraged by the successes that have been vouchsafed to us, stimulated by the great interests that depend upon the issue, and sustained by prayers of those in whose defence you fight, let every man resolve to put forth his utmost efforts, to endure all and brave all, until by the assistance of a just and merciful God the enemy shall be driven back and peace secured to our country.

Some of our bravest officers and men have fallen, but their surviving comrades not less brave will emulate their glorious examples, and Continue to emulate the valor of your brave comrades who have fallen [illegible phrase] that it depends on you to see that they shall not have died in vain. With the blessing of God, it is in your power to defeat the last great effort of the enemy, secure independence to your native land, and earn for yourselves the love and gratitude of your country men and the admiration of mankind.

An early draft of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s message to the Army of Northern Virginia during the Battle of Spotsylvania, May 1864 (spelling is original)

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-04429.pdf

Upton’s Brigade attacks at Spotsylvania.

The Battle of Spotsylvania

After the inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Union Generals Grant and Meade took the Army of the Potomac south, following General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates. They aimed to hold Spotsylvania Court House which would cut off the Confederate retreat, but the Rebels got there first. By May 8, the fighting started again and would be part of the five day Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

The Confederates initially held onto some high ground and extended their lines to include a constructed salient which became known as “the Mule Shoe.” On May 10, Union attacks focused mainly on the Confederates left. The following day skirmishing and artillery fire occurred, and the Union generals planned a massive assault. On May 12, an assault – mostly by the Union II Corps – hit the Confederates’ Mule Shoe and penetrated while other units aimed for the left and right. The II Corps men pushed back the Confederates, but then timely Southern reinforcements arrived and it dissolved into horrible hand-to-hand fighting that last for hours in the rain, mud, and sloshing blood.

Lee retreated early on May 13, again heading south. Grant moved his army again, continuing to hit the marching Confederates until they crossed the North Anna River on May 20 which marked a new part of the campaign.

May 12, 1864 – attacks on the Mule Shoe
(Credit: Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW )

Confederate Hopes

This written draft by Robert E. Lee is significant because it reveals his thoughts about the situation that spring of 1864. Also, if you view the transcription from the original (see link above) it shows the words that he changed, removed, and inserted. Both a writer’s treasure and insight into this Confederate commander’s perspective.

General Robert E. Lee, Civil War era photograph

Although Wilderness and Spotsylvania did not result in Confederate victories, Lee tried to positively highlight successes elsewhere. Both the cavalry raid on the railroads and Sigel’s invasion of the Shenandoah Valley had been turned back. And not all had gone as planned for Union troops in Arkansas or Louisiana. Lee exhorted his men in the Army of Northern Virginia to fight on bravely, possibly gambling that the Army of the Potomac and northern homefront would not survive the heavy losses in Virginia and insist on a called-off campaign or new strategy.

However, for Lee, that idea would not pay off. Grant could replace the numbers of lost soldiers in his armies. Lee could not. Since Grant intended to wear down Confederate armies, supplies, and morale, Lee’s hopes would fade as the summer and autumn came.

Historical Musings

Lee – like other Civil War generals – ascribed victories to God’s providence. He was one of the generals who would also recognize defeats as part of God’s will. That doesn’t mean Lee wanted to lose the war, that he was always strong in his faith, or making good judgments, but he trusted in an all-wise God. Lee tried to find positive things in difficult situations, something often reflected in his personal writings.

Cannon with a spiderweb at Spotsylvania Battlefield

This general had a difficult road after the ending of the Civil War, but he found purpose in teaching and directing a new generation of American students at Washington College (now Washington & Lee University). There, he encouraged young men to let go of the bitterness of defeat and try to find ways to rebuild and move forward from the war. Perhaps some of Lee’s greatest moments were not on the battlefields, but rather after the war when he used his influence, perspective, and deep faith to build the next generation.

Lee was not the “marble man” or the perfect saint that many have wanted to make him. He had plenty of flaws, like all of us. But, I think there is much to learn from his writings, and this letter showcases three important qualities in his life and leadership: a positive outlook, a focus on God’s blessings/will, and a determination to inspire and encourage bravery in others.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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