Northern Virginia and the Confederate Strategy Conference

In northern Virginia, Federal troops of Major-General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac continued working to secure their positions by driving elements of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia away from the crossings on the Rappahannock River. Brigadier-General John Buford, leading a Federal cavalry division, had been ordered to clear the area around Kelly’s Ford of enemy troops.  

Buford instead sent troops from the Twelfth Corps across at Kelly’s and rode upriver to Rappahannock Station. After sorting out the miscommunication, Federal engineers finally arrived and laid a bridge across the river, enabling Buford’s horsemen to cross. As Buford rode out to confront any nearby Confederates, he encountered stiff resistance from Brigadier-General Wade Hampton’s brigade of Major-General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry near the Brandy Station battlefield of June 9.  

Lee reported that Stuart himself was “in the front with the brigade the whole day.” Buford reported, “By keeping my men well in hand, I managed to drive him back to within 1 1/2 miles of Culpeper, where I met a heavy force of infantry belonging to (Lieutenant-General) A.P. Hill’s corps.” Buford ordered a withdrawal, recounting, “The fight was very handsomely executed, there were several charges, and sabers were used with success.”  

From the Confederate prisoners taken, Buford learned that Hill’s corps was at Culpeper, while the main part of Lee’s army was south, near Gordonsville. Based on this skirmish, Lee stated, “It was now determined to place the army in a position to enable it more readily to oppose the enemy should he attempt to move southward.”  

By August 4, the Army of Northern Virginia had taken positions along the Rapidan River, while the Army of the Potomac remained north of the Rappahannock. Both armies were roughly where they had begun the Gettysburg campaign, with Federals occupying the area where Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had begun the Second Bull Run campaign a year ago.  

The forces remained stationary for the time being, except for sporadic skirmishes and raids. On the 6th, John S. Mosby and his Confederate partisans captured a Federal wagon train at Fairfax Court House, making off with the supplies without a Federal pursuit.  

Near mid-August, Meade went to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln and the cabinet. Meade received a warm reception in the capital, as most approved of his performance in the recent Gettysburg campaign. He wrote his wife that his visit “was certainly most gratifying to me. I really believe I have the confidence of all parties, and will continue to retain it, unless some great disaster should overtake me…”  

Meanwhile, General Lee kept up regular communication with President Jefferson Davis at Richmond. Lee’s army consisted of about 58,000 effectives, having been reinforced by 3,000 men from Major-General Samuel Jones’s West Virginia command and augmented by the return of some stragglers and those slightly wounded. When Lee suggested bolstering his army with more men, Davis replied, “It is painful to contemplate our weakness when you ask for reinforcements.”  

In addition to the manpower shortage, Lee’s army lacked necessities such as food and shoes, and horses lacked grain and equipment. Disrupted rail lines affected the delivery of what little supplies could be gathered. And Lee’s chief of ordnance wrote that all ammunition delivered by Richmond must be tested before distribution because some of the artillery shells did not fit the guns.  

Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding a corps in Lee’s army, wrote to Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall to offer his opinion on the current state of affairs. Longstreet believed that the army in Virginia should stay on the defensive while the main focus of Confederate attention should be to destroy Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal army threatening Chattanooga.  

Longstreet urged Wigfall to use his political influence to give him command of the Army of Tennessee, replacing General Braxton Bragg. Longstreet wrote that he was “not essential” in his current role, and “I hope that I may get west in time to save what there is left of us.” Longstreet assured Wigfall, “I have no personal motives in this” because he would be “second to (Western Theater commander Joseph) Johnston and therefore in the same relative position I am at present.” But Longstreet knew that Johnston would most likely give him a free hand in running the day-to-day operations if he was to come west and replace Bragg.  

According to Longstreet, “I called General Lee’s attention to the condition of our affairs in the West. I suggested that he should adhere to his defensive tactics upon the Rapidan, and reinforce from his army the army lying in front of Rosecrans–so that it could crush that army, and then push on to the West.”  

Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Longstreet offered this same opinion to Secretary of War James A. Seddon. Longstreet later recalled warning Seddon “that the successful march of General Rosecrans’s army through Georgia would virtually be the finishing stroke of the war… the remedy was to order the Army of Northern Virginia to defensive work, and send detachments to reinforce the army in Tennessee… and strike a crushing blow against General Rosecrans before he could receive reinforcing help.”  

But Davis felt differently. Near month’s end, he summoned Lee to a series of conferences in Richmond to “prepare the army for offensive operations.” Not only were Rosecrans’s Federals closing in on Chattanooga, but Federals were threatening Knoxville and the vital port city of Charleston as well. And across the Mississippi, Federals were poised to capture Little Rock and threaten the Texas coast.  

Davis suggested keeping Longstreet in Virginia and sending just Lee to Tennessee to take over Bragg’s army. Lee opposed both proposals, instead arguing that the best way to take Federal pressure off the threatened points was to go on the offensive against Meade. He wrote to Longstreet, commanding the army in his place, on the 31st:  

“I have wished for several days to return to the army, but have been detained by the President. He will not listen to my proposition to leave to-morrow. I hope you will use every exertion to prepare the army for offensive operations, and improve the condition of our men and animals. I can see nothing better to be done than to endeavor to bring General Meade out and use our efforts to crush his army while in its present condition.”  

The talks continued into September.  


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