Lee’s Daring Gamble

May 15, 1863 – Confederate General Robert E. Lee attended a strategy conference with President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet at Richmond, where Lee unveiled a daring plan to invade the North once more.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee said, “At Chancellorsville we gained another victory. Our people were wild with delight. I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our losses were severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued.”

Although the victory was sensational, it did nothing to alleviate the growing hardships throughout the Confederacy. Many people lacked the bare essentials due to the Federal blockade and Confederate economic policy, mass inflation had made the cost of living nearly unbearable, and Federal military pressure on all fronts continued relentlessly. Meanwhile, immigrants flooded into the northern states, and with the arming of slaves, the Federal armies outnumbered the Confederates by four-to-one.

The opposing armies in northern Virginia returned to their respective camps at Falmouth and Fredericksburg, as if Chancellorsville never happened. The Federal threat to Richmond remained, and Lee had lost many valuable men, including Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The manpower shortage was so severe that he had to deny a request from veterans of the Stonewall Brigade to escort Jackson’s body to Richmond.

With Ulysses S. Grant advancing on Vicksburg, the Confederate high command looked to detach one of Lee’s divisions (Major General George Pickett’s of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps) to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma. The idea was for Bragg to defeat Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland at Nashville and then move southwest to relieve Vicksburg.

Lee wrote Secretary of War James A. Seddon urging him not to do this. Lee argued that the reinforcements would not arrive until the end of the month, and, “If anything is done in that quarter (Mississippi), it will be over by that time as the climate in June will force the enemy to retire.”

To Lee, the administration had to decide whether to hold the Mississippi River or hold Virginia. Holding Virginia meant sending all available resources to Lee. But Lee could not hope to operate in northern Virginia much longer, as the region had been ravaged by the armies and lacked sufficient forage to feed his troops and animals. Lee went to Richmond on the 14th to discuss the situation with Davis and his advisors.

The officials talked about Lee’s continuing struggles with shortages of supplies and manpower as he faced one of the largest, best-equipped armies in the world. Lee said that the situation had “resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.”

Lee asserted that a successful invasion could do all or some of the following:

  • Relieve northern Virginia of the wartime ravages
  • Enable Lee to resupply his army with the rich northern harvests
  • Discredit the Lincoln administration’s prosecution of the war and encourage Peace Democrats (i.e., Copperheads) to agitate for peace
  • Encourage Europe to recognize Confederate independence
  • Compel Grant to abandon Vicksburg and come north to meet the threat

If the Confederates could capture or threaten cities such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself, they could force President Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace. Lee was convinced that, unlike the Maryland campaign last September, this would work because the Federals would not have the benefit of a “lost order” to tell them where the enemy would be.

Some cabinet members continued pushing to send part or all of Longstreet’s corps to Tennessee. Davis strongly supported doing everything possible to hold the Mississippi River (i.e., Vicksburg and Port Hudson). Lee argued that doing so would lose Virginia. He said, “The distance and the uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable.”

The conference lasted several days. By the 16th, only Davis and Postmaster General John Reagan still supported sending part of Lee’s army to Tennessee. Reagan, the only cabinet member from the Trans-Mississippi (Texas), argued that the greatest Federal threat came from the West, not Virginia. The other five cabinet members (Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of War Seddon, Treasury Secretary Christopher G. Memminger, Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, and Attorney General Thomas G. Watts) favored Lee’s plan.

Even Longstreet, who had first suggested the idea of detaching part of his corps, now changed his mind. He wrote Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, “When I agreed with (Seddon) and yourself about sending troops west, it was under the impression that we would be obliged to remain on the defensive here. But the prospect of an advance changes the aspect of affairs.”

Davis called for an unofficial vote on the night of the 16th, and all but Reagan sided with Lee. The next morning, Reagan urgently asked Davis to hold another meeting to reconsider approving Lee’s plan. Davis agreed, but Reagan could not convince anyone to change their votes. Lee’s plan was approved.



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