Lee Becomes General-in-Chief

February 11, 1865 – Robert E. Lee issued his first order as the new general-in-chief of the Confederacy.

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

As the Battle of Hatcher’s Run took place and Lee attended Sunday church services in Petersburg, a messenger unofficially informed him that President Jefferson Davis would make him the Confederacy’s first general-in-chief the next day.

On the 6th, Davis issued orders confirming Lee’s appointment, in accordance with the act of the Confederate Congress passed on January 26. Lee ostensibly took overall command of all Confederate armies away from Davis and his military staff; Davis had long been criticized for micromanaging the military, and many hoped that Lee’s appointment would diminish Davis’s influence over military strategy.

To further silence his critics, Davis also appointed Major General (and former U.S. Vice President) John C. Breckinridge as secretary of war. Breckinridge quickly worked to improve the delivery of food and supplies to Lee’s starving Army of Northern Virginia, which was on the verge of collapse. However, desertion still pervaded the Confederate ranks as many hungry, cold, tired, and demoralized soldiers answered letters from desperate relatives under attack by Federal invaders.

The new post of general-in-chief and a new secretary of war ultimately did not reduce Davis’s control over the military as much as most hoped. Lee had to continue devoting most of his attention to his own critical situation, and out of respect for his friendship with Davis, Lee often deferred to the president instead of taking a more assertive role in his new position. And Breckinridge’s main focus was keeping Lee’s army strong enough to protect the Confederate capital. This left Davis to continue exerting control over the remaining armies.

Lee assumed his new role as general-in-chief on the 9th and announced that he would make no major changes at that time. Two days later, he issued his first order (with Davis’s approval), in which he offered pardons to all deserters if they returned to their ranks within 20 days. Lee also declared that the Confederacy’s choice was now “between war and abject submission,” and–

“… to such a proposal brave men with arms in their hands can have but one answer. They cannot barter manhood for peace, nor the right of self-government for life or property… Taking new resolution from the fate which our enemies intend for us, let every man devote all his energies to the common defense. Our resources, wisely and vigorously employed, are ample, and with a brave army, sustained by a determined and united people, success with God’s assistance cannot be doubtful… Let us then oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger, with the firm assurance that He who gave freedom to our fathers will bless the efforts of their children to preserve it.”

Another change in the Confederate high command involved replacing Colonel Lucius B. Northrop as Confederate commissary general. Northrop had been one of Davis’s favorites and thus shared the same powerful enemies as the president. The Commissary Department suffered from a lack of adequate funding, transportation, and supply, and Northrop’s alleged incompetence only made matters worse.

Northrop was replaced by Isaac M. St. John, the current head of the Niter and Mining Bureau. St. John was awarded the rank of brigadier general, a rank that Davis had given Northrop but was never confirmed by the Confederate Senate. St. John quickly improved the Commissary Department by gathering and sending three million rations of bread and 2.5 million rations of meat to the troops, along with new uniforms.

However, these changes seemed to be too little, too late for the Confederacy. Lee wrote to Breckinridge on the 18th, “It is necessary to bring out all our strength, and, I fear, to unite our armies, as separately they do not seem able to make head against the enemy… I fear it may be necessary to abandon our cities, and preparations should be made for that contingency.” Three days later, Lee outlined his strategy regarding his army at Petersburg:

“In the event of the necessity of abandoning our position on the James River, I shall endeavor to unite the corps of the army about Burkeville (junction of South Side and Danville railroads), so as to retain communication with the north and south as long as practicable, and also with the west. I should think Lynchburg, or some point west, the most advantageous place to which to remove stores from Richmond. This, however, is a most difficult point at this time to decide, and the place may have to be changed by circumstances.”

In a letter to Davis, Lee called for concentrating all the Confederate armies into one force. He acknowledged that it would “necessitate the abandonment of our position on the James River, for which contingency every preparation should be made.”



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