April began with General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia holding Fredericksburg in northeastern Virginia. Lee had dispatched two divisions under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet to forage in the Blackwater region near Suffolk, leaving the army temporarily shorthanded. Lee therefore remained on the defensive while he worked to determine what Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River at Falmouth, had in store for him.
Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that the Federals were beginning to make it harder for him to get intelligence on their activities. Lee guessed that “their object is to deceive us, and that they may, while intending to act on the defensive, have re-enforced other points for offensive operations.” But Lee conceded that he could get no further details “until we are able to make some aggressive movements.”
Meanwhile, Lee was battling poor health for the first time in 14 years. He had contracted a severe throat infection along with sharp pains in his arm, chest, and back that “came on in paroxysms” and pointed to a potential heart attack. But Lee informed his wife on April 5 that he hoped to finally be on the way to recovery. He wrote that doctors “have been tapping me all over like an old steam boiler before condemning it.” Only later was it determined that Lee probably suffered from pericarditis, with the presence of angina pectoris (i.e., a symptom of heart disease).
From Suffolk, Longstreet reported to Lee, “I hope to be able to finish with the operations in this section in time to join you (for the spring campaign)…” But Secretary of War James A. Seddon instead asked Lee to send Longstreet’s entire corps to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma. Bragg was currently being threatened by Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal army coming down from Murfreesboro. Lee responded to Seddon’s request with a bolder plan:
“Should Hooker’s army assume the defensive, the readiest method of relieving the pressure upon General Johnston (commanding the Western Department) and General Beauregard (commanding at Charleston) would be for the army to cross into Maryland. This cannot be done, however, in the present condition of the roads, nor unless I can obtain a certain amount of provisions and transportation. But this is what I would recommend, if practicable.”
Lee knew that for such an invasion to succeed, his army needed supplies from North Carolina, and for that reason, Longstreet had to stay in southern Virginia and gather as many of those supplies as possible. By this time, Lee had been informed of the Federal threat to Charleston as well as the threats from Rosecrans in Tennessee and Major-General Ulysses S. Grant in Mississippi (both part of Johnston’s department).
Lee also regularly read the northern newspapers, which openly revealed that the troops in the Army of the Potomac who had signed up for two-year and nine-month terms were set to be discharged in early May. The papers also reported that the Conscription Act that had passed in March would soon lead to a military draft and an influx of new Federal troops. Rumors swirled in the Confederate army that Hooker would wait until the discharged troops were replaced by conscripts before moving against Lee.
This would be advantageous to Lee because it would give him more time to allow Longstreet to forage and for the rest of his army to be retooled. Lee wrote Davis that his Confederates might be able to go on the offensive if Hooker would “be weakened by the expiration of the term of service of many of his regiments, and before new recruits can be received.”
However, Lee maintained that “at present we are very much scattered, and I am unable to bring the army together for want of proper subsistence and forage.” In fact, Lee reported to Seddon that his men were surviving on just a quarter-pound of meat and a pound of flour per day, and a tenth of a pound of rice two or three times per week. Scurvy and typhoid were afflicting the men as a result. So for now all Lee could do was wait until he either discovered Hooker’s plan or Hooker started moving against him.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.