March 26, 1864 – Confederate scouts informed General Robert E. Lee that the officers’ wives in the Federal Army of the Potomac were leaving camp, indicating that the Federals were about to mobilize for a new offensive.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained camped south of the Rapidan River, waiting for the battle season to begin again. Upon learning that Ulysses S. Grant had become general-in-chief of all Federal armies, Lee believed that Grant would stay in the Western Theater, where he was most familiar. He told Lieutenant General James Longstreet in eastern Tennessee that he suspected “the enemy’s great effort will be in the west, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.”
Lee told President Jefferson Davis that he was “not disposed to believe from what I now know, that the first important effort will be directed against Richmond.” With the Army of the Potomac having gained hardly any ground in three years, Lee reasoned that Grant would most likely just use it as a diversion while he focused on destroying the western Confederate armies.
When Lee received a copy of Grant’s General Order No. 1 declaring that his headquarters would be with the Army of the Potomac, Lee still maintained that Grant’s main focus would be on the west. Lee wrote Davis, “There was no apparent occasion for the publication at such a time and place of his intention to take up his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, and the announcement appears to me to be made with some hidden purpose.” Lee continued:
“There is to my mind an appearance of design about the order intended to mislead us as to the enemy’s intention, and if possible, induce corresponding preparation on our part. I cannot learn that the army of Gen. (George G.) Meade has been reinforced by any organized troops, nor can I learn of any coming east over the B&O Railroad which I have ordered to be watched closely.”
In fact, Brigadier General John D. Imboden, commanding Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley, had informed Lee that the “enemy was moving troops westwards over that road all last week.” Although this did not prove that the Federals were shifting troops from the Army of the Potomac to the west, it indicated some kind of buildup away from northern Virginia.
Lee further reasoned that the west would be where the action began because “the roads will probably be more favorable for active operations at an early day in the south (i.e., northern Georgia) than in Va. where it will be uncertain for more than a month.”
Lee explained, “I am inclined to believe that the first efforts of the enemy will be directed against Gen (Joseph E.) Johnston (commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee) or Gen Longstreet, most probably the former. If it succeeds, Richmond will no doubt be attacked.” But Lee “cannot do more than weigh probabilities, they are useful in stimulating and directing a vigilant observation of the enemy, and suggesting such a policy on our part as may determine his.” The best course of action would be to–
“… make the best preparations in our power to meet an advance in any quarter, but be careful not to suffer ourselves to be misled by feigned movements into strengthening one point at the expense of others. We should hold ourselves in constant readiness to concentrate as rapidly as possible wherever it may be necessary, but do nothing without reasonably certain information except prepare.”
Lee hoped that Johnston in northern Georgia and Longstreet in eastern Tennessee might fend off any Federal offensive in the west, writing:
“Energy and activity on our part, with a constant readiness to seize any opportunity to strike a blow, will embarrass, if not entirely thwart the enemy in concentrating his different armies, and compel him to conform his movements to ours. In the meantime, to guard against any contingency, everything not immediately required should be sent away from Richmond, and store of food and other supplies collected in suitable and safe places for the use of the troops that it may become necessary to assemble for its defense.”
All this changed when Lee received word that the officers’ wives in the Army of the Potomac had begun leaving the camps. As more news about Federal mobilization trickled in, Lee finally realized that the main thrust of the upcoming Federal offensive would be against his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee reported to Davis on the 28th:
“General Grant has returned from the West. He is at present with the Army of the Potomac, which is being reorganized and recruited. From the reports of our scouts the impression prevails in that army that he will operate it in the coming campaign. Every train brings it recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it.”
Lee also correctly reported that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had resumed command of his old IX Corps, which was assembling in Maryland, and that Major General Franz Sigel was preparing his Federal army for a thrust into the Shenandoah Valley. Lee wrote that Burnside was “organizing a large army at Annapolis, and it seems probable that additional troops are being sent to the valley.”
Lee expressed concern that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which had been wrecked numerous times by Confederate cavalry, was now operational from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, and it was “closely guarded along its whole extent.” This indicated “secrecy and preparation.”
Lee stated that Grant’s “plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power.”
To do this, Lee suggested that either Johnston or Longstreet launch an offensive: “If an aggressive movement can be made in the West, it will disconcert their plans and oblige them to conform to ours.” If that could not be done, “Longstreet should be held in readiness to be thrown rapidly in the valley, if necessary, to counteract any movement in that quarter, in accomplishing which I could unite with him, or he unite with me, should circumstances require it, on the Rapidan.”
Never before had the Army of Northern Virginia been in such danger. As the Federals massed on all fronts, Lee had just 40,000 effectives south of the Rapidan River. A.R. Lawton, the army quartermaster general, reported that the battered railroads were delivering more supplies than ever, even though they were on a “forced march.” Lawton worked to ensure that supplies continued arriving for the troops by rail because combat would soon resume.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45