April 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee issued orders preparing his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to meet the Federal army as soon as it crossed the Rapidan River to attack.
Lee’s forces had been camped near Orange Court House on the south side of the Rapidan since late last year. This month, they began preparing for active operations against the new Federal general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was also watching a Federal buildup in Maryland under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. Confederate scouts confirmed that the Federals were closing their sutler shops and sending their wives to the rear, which indicated that mobilization was imminent. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis:
“The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that Genl Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps in Lee’s army, had been detached since last September and was currently operating around Bristol in eastern Tennessee. Longstreet received orders on the 7th to move his Confederates to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he could reinforce Lee if needed.
The next day, Lee informed Davis that two reliable sources stated “the general impression was that the great battle would take place on the Rapidan, and that the Federal army would advance as soon as the weather is settled.” As the Confederates prepared to take the Federals on, Lee continued his struggle to get them much-needed supplies. He wrote Davis:
“There is nothing to be had in this section for man or animals. My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina.”
Lee wrote Davis again on the 15th:
“If Richmond could be held secure against the attack from the east, I would propose that I draw Longstreet to me and move right against the enemy on the Rappahannock. Should God give us a crowning victory there, all their plans would be dissipated, and their troops now collecting on the waters of the Chesapeake would be recalled to the defense of Washington. But to make this move I must have provisions and forage. I am not yet able to call to me the cavalry or artillery. If I am obliged to retire from this line, either by a flank movement of the enemy or the want of supplies, great injury will befall us.”
The lack of adequate supplies compelled Lee to adopt a defensive posture. He now could only hope to hold the Federals in check long enough for the northern public to grow tired of the war and replace Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election with a candidate who would negotiate a peace.
By mid-April, Lee had determined that three Federal forces would be moving toward Richmond:
- Major General Franz Sigel’s army from the Shenandoah Valley
- The Army of the Potomac from north of the Rapidan
- Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s army from the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers
The Confederates began mobilizing on the 18th and sending excess baggage to the rear. However, the Federal activity seemed to slow down. After a week of observation, Lee wrote Davis, “The advance of the Army of the Potomac seems to be delayed for some reason. It appears to be prepared for movement, but is probably waiting for its cooperative columns.” Lee invited Davis to review the army, “if the enemy remains quiet and the weather favorable.” Davis declined, citing too much work to do.
Despite the supply shortages, Lee as always began exploring ways to seize the initiative. His force was just half the size of Grant’s, but it equaled the number Lee had at Chancellorsville last year. Lee discussed his options with Longstreet, who later wrote, “I took the earliest opportunity to suggest that the preliminaries of the campaign should be carefully confined to strategic maneuver until we could show better generalship.” This would compel the Federals to “lose confidence in the superiority of their leader’s skill and prowess.”
Longstreet reasoned that if Lee attacked first, such “immediate aggression from us against his greater numbers must make our labors heavy and more or less doubtful.” To Longstreet, the “power of battle is in generalship more than in the number of soldiers, which, properly illustrated, would make the weaker numbers of the contention the stronger force.” Thus, Lee would remain on the defensive, waiting for Grant to make the first move.
On the last day of April, Lee forwarded intelligence to Davis: “I send you the Philadelphia Inquirer of the 26th, from which you will learn that all Burnside’s available forces are being advanced to the front.” A spy named Thomas Conrad confirmed Lee’s suspicion that Burnside would be moving up from Centreville to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Lee wrote:
“Our scouts report that the engineer troops, pontoon trains, and all the cavalry of Meade’s army have been advanced south of the Rappahannock… Everything indicates a concentrated attack on this front, which renders me the more anxious to get back the troops belonging to this army, & causes me to suggest if possible, that others be moved from points at the south, where they can be spared, to Richmond.”
But the Confederate high command had few troops to spare. Lee’s army could expect no help as it was about to face the 122,000-man Army of the Potomac.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 390; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2512-22, 2551-620; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 415; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720, 6731-43; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 43-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 481-82, 484-85; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53, 58