Northern Virginia and the Confederate Strategy Conference

August 31, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee attended a conference with President Jefferson Davis at Richmond to discuss upcoming Confederate strategy in Virginia and elsewhere.

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit:

In northern Virginia, Federal troops of Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac continued working to secure their positions by driving Confederates away from the crossings on the Rappahannock River. Brigadier General John Buford, leading a Federal cavalry division, had been ordered to clear the area around Kelly’s Ford of enemy troops. Buford instead sent troops from XII Corps across at Kelly’s and rode upriver to Rappahannock Station. After sorting out the miscommunication, Federal engineers finally arrived and laid a bridge across the river, enabling Buford’s horsemen to cross.

As Buford rode out to confront any nearby Confederates, he encountered stiff resistance from Brigadier General Wade Hampton’s brigade of Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry near the Brandy Station battlefield of June 9. Lee reported that Stuart himself was “in the front with the brigade the whole day.” Buford reported, “By keeping my men well in hand, I managed to drive him back to within 1 1/2 miles of Culpeper, where I met a heavy force of infantry belonging to A.P. Hill’s corps.”

Buford ordered a withdrawal, recounting, “The fight was very handsomely executed, there were several charges, and sabers were used with success.” From the Confederate prisoners taken, Buford learned that Hill’s corps was at Culpeper, while the main part of Lee’s army was south, near Gordonsville. Based on this skirmish, Lee stated, “It was now determined to place the army in a position to enable it more readily to oppose the enemy should he attempt to move southward.”

By the 4th, the Army of Northern Virginia had taken positions along the Rapidan River, while the Army of the Potomac remained north of the Rappahannock. Both armies were roughly where they had begun the Gettysburg campaign, with Federals occupying the area where Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had begun the Second Bull Run campaign a year ago.

The forces remained stationary for the time being, except for sporadic skirmishes and raids. On the 6th, John S. Mosby and his Confederate partisans captured a Federal wagon train at Fairfax Court House, making off with the supplies without a Federal pursuit.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

When Lee suggested bolstering his army with more men, President Davis replied, “It is painful to contemplate our weakness when you ask for reinforcements.” Lee’s army contained about 58,000 effectives, having been reinforced by 3,000 men from Major General Samuel Jones’s West Virginia command and augmented by the return of some stragglers and those slightly wounded.

However, the men lacked necessities such as food and shoes, and horses lacked grain and equipment. Disrupted rail lines affected the delivery of what little supplies could be gathered. And Lee’s chief of ordnance wrote that all ammunition delivered by Richmond must be tested before distribution because some of the artillery shells did not fit the guns.

Near month’s end, Davis summoned Lee to a series of conferences in Richmond to “prepare the army for offensive operations.” While the armies in Virginia were stalemated, the Federals were getting closer to capturing the vital port city of Charleston, and they were closing in on Chattanooga and Knoxville as well. And across the Mississippi, Federals were poised to capture Little Rock and threaten the Texas coast.

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, interim army commander in Lee’s absence, later wrote, “I called General Lee’s attention to the condition of our affairs in the West. I suggested that he should adhere to his defensive tactics upon the Rapidan, and reinforce from his army the army lying in front of (General William) Rosecrans–so that it could crush that army, and then push on to the West.”

Davis suggested keeping Longstreet in Virginia and sending just Lee to Tennessee to take over General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Lee opposed both proposals, instead arguing that the best way to take Federal pressure off the threatened points was to go on the offensive against Meade. Lee wrote Longstreet on the 31st, “I can see nothing better to be done than to endeavor to bring General Meade out and use our efforts to crush his army while in the present condition.”

The talks continued into September.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 313, 315, 317; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 594, 708; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 339; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6327, 6361-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 394, 397; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 671

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