Lee’s Daring Gamble

Confederate General Robert E. Lee faced a dilemma. His Army of Northern Virginia had just won a remarkable victory at Chancellorsville, but now his troops were back in their original camps around Fredericksburg, and the defeated Federal Army of the Potomac was back across the river from them at Falmouth. Nothing had changed. As Lee said, “At Chancellorsville we gained another victory. Our people were wild with delight. I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our losses were severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued.”

Although the victory was sensational, it did nothing to alleviate the growing hardships throughout the Confederacy. Many people lacked the bare essentials due to the Federal blockade and Confederate economic policy, mass inflation had made the cost of living nearly unbearable, and Federal military pressure on all fronts continued relentlessly. Meanwhile, immigrants were flooding into the northern states, and with the arming of slaves, the Federal armies outnumbered the Confederates four-to-one.

The Federal threat to the Confederate capital of Richmond remained, and Lee had lost many valuable men, including Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The manpower shortage was so severe that he had to deny a request from veterans of the Stonewall Brigade to escort Jackson’s body to Richmond for funeral services.

With Ulysses S. Grant advancing on Vicksburg in Mississippi, Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon proposed that Lee detach Major-General George Pickett’s division to reinforce Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton’s Confederates opposing Grant. Lee telegraphed that such a move would be “hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and Mississippi.”

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee then sent a more detailed response, arguing that Pickett’s men would not get to Mississippi until the end of the month, and, “If anything is done in that quarter (Mississippi), it will be over by that time as the climate in June will force the enemy to retire.” Lee did not expect Grant’s Federals to be able to handle the Mississippi summer, which turned out to be a very wrong assumption. Lee also cast indirect doubts on Pemberton’s generalship, adding, “The uncertainty of its arrival and the uncertainty of its application cause me to doubt the policy of sending it.”

But most importantly, if Lee’s army was depleted any further, “we may be obliged to withdraw into the defenses around Richmond.” If reports were correct that the Potomac army included over 150,000 troops, then Seddon could “see the odds against us and decide whether the line of Virginia is more in danger than the line of the Mississippi.” Seddon showed this letter to President Jefferson Davis, who wrote, “The answer of Gen. Lee was such as I should have anticipated, and in which I concur.”

A conference to discuss strategy was called for May 15. Four days prior to this, Lee summoned Lieutenant-General James Longstreet to his headquarters to weigh options. Longstreet acknowledged that the Army of Northern Virginia had scored several impressive victories under Lee, but they were “fruitless … even victories such as these were consuming us, and would eventually destroy us…”

Longstreet initially supported sending Pickett to Mississippi, as long as Lee’s army remained on the defensive. But Lee did not want to stay on the defensive. Just as Major-General Joseph Hooker wanted to coax Lee out of his defenses to fight a battle on his terms, Lee now wanted to coax Hooker out for the same reason. Lee wanted to score a victory so decisive that it would force the Lincoln administration to consider the possibility of ending the war. Longstreet supported Lee’s idea.

Lee boarded a train on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad on the 14th. The main purpose of the conference was ostensibly to address the Vicksburg emergency, but it quickly transformed into a discussion about Lee’s army relieving the pressure on Vicksburg by taking the offensive in Virginia. Holding Virginia would mean sending all available resources to Lee. But Lee could not hope to operate in northern Virginia much longer, as the region had been ravaged by the armies and lacked sufficient forage to feed his troops and animals. This led to the idea of launching a second invasion of the North.

The conference began on the 15th at the Confederate War Department, formerly the Virginia Mechanics Institute building on Franklin Street. Lee, Davis, and Davis’s cabinet attended. Neither Davis nor Secretary of War Seddon were in good health, and both remained strongly in favor of sending reinforcements to Mississippi.

Lee talked about the continuing struggles with shortages of supplies and manpower as he faced one of the largest, best-equipped armies in the world. Lee said that the situation had “resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” Lee asserted that a successful invasion could do some or all of the following:

  • Relieve northern Virginia of the wartime ravages
  • Enable Lee to resupply his army with the rich northern harvests
  • Discredit the Lincoln administration’s prosecution of the war and encourage Peace Democrats (i.e., Copperheads) to agitate for peace in the North
  • Encourage Europe to recognize Confederate independence
  • Compel Grant to abandon Vicksburg and come north to meet the threat

If the Confederates could capture or threaten cities such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself, they could force President Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace. Lee was convinced that, unlike the Maryland campaign last September, this would work because the Federals would not have the benefit of a “lost order” to tell them where the enemy would be.

Some cabinet members continued pushing to send part or all of Longstreet’s corps west. Davis strongly supported doing everything possible to hold the Mississippi River (i.e., Vicksburg and Port Hudson). Lee argued that doing so would lose Virginia. He asserted, “The distance and the uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable.”

The conference lasted several days. By the 16th, Seddon had switched his support in favor of Lee, leaving only Davis and Postmaster General John Reagan still supporting sending part of Lee’s army west. Reagan, the only cabinet member from the Trans-Mississippi (Texas), argued that the greatest Federal threat came from the West, not Virginia. The other four cabinet members (Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, Treasury Secretary Christopher G. Memminger, Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, and Attorney General Thomas G. Watts) favored Lee’s plan.

Longstreet explained why he had changed his mind and now supported Lee to Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas: “When I agreed with (Seddon) and yourself about sending troops west, it was under the impression that we would be obliged to remain on the defensive here. But the prospect of an advance changes the aspect of affairs.”

Davis called for an unofficial vote on the night of the 16th, and all but Reagan sided with Lee. The next morning, Reagan urgently asked Davis to hold another meeting to reconsider approving Lee’s plan. Davis agreed, but Reagan could not convince anyone to change their votes. Lee’s plan was approved.


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