Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

Confederates Prepare in Northern Virginia

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.

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

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


Grant Suspends Prisoner Exchange

April 1, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant issued “most emphatic” orders to take no action on agreeing to exchange prisoners of war without further notification. This initiated a grim new war policy.

On the last day of March, Robert Ould, Confederate commissioner of prisoner exchange, met with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, the Federal agent for prisoner exchange, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, to discuss ways to solve the problems with the exchange system.

A makeshift prisoner exchange cartel had been agreed upon in 1862, but it had virtually dissolved by the middle of 1863. The Federal victories at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and other locations resulted in the capture of tens of thousands of Confederates, and instead of shipping them to northern prison camps, they were paroled on the promise that they would not take up arms against the U.S. again until properly exchanged for Federal prisoners.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant was enraged when he discovered that many Confederates captured during the Battle of Chattanooga had violated their pledge and returned to the army without being exchanged. An effort was made to renew the cartel, but the Confederates initially refused to deal with Butler because the Confederate government had branded him a war criminal for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans in 1862.

The Confederates also refused to recognize black Federal soldiers as legitimate prisoners of war and would not exchange them. According to the Confederate War Bureau, “The enlistment of our slaves is a barbarity. No people… could tolerate… the use of savages (against them) … We cannot on any principle allow that our property can acquire adverse rights by virtue of a theft of it.”

In late 1863, the Confederates expressed willingness to negotiate the exchange of black prisoners who had been free before enlisting, but the Federal government refused to distinguish between free blacks and slaves in the military. Ould declared that the Confederates would “die in the last ditch” before “giving up the right to send slaves back to slavery as property recaptured.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton called this “a shameful dishonor… when (the Confederates) agree to exchange all alike there will be no difficulty.”

Four months later, Ould and Butler finally arranged to sit down together and try working out their differences. The men agreed that Butler would work with his superiors to address all the points of contention and then meet with Ould again.

However, when Butler conferred with Grant the next day, Butler said that “most emphatic verbal directions were received from the Lieutenant-General not to take any step by which another able-bodied man should be exchanged until further orders from him.”

On the 17th, Grant outlined a major policy change on the issue in a letter to Butler: “Until there is released to us an equal number of officers and men as were captured and paroled at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, not another Confederate prisoner of war will be paroled or exchanged.” Confederate officials had claimed that the troops had returned to the army prematurely due to a clerical error. Grant demanded proof, and he added another stipulation:

“No distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners, the only question being, were they, at the time of their capture, in the military service of the United States. If they were, the same terms as to treatment while prisoners and conditions of release and exchange must be exacted and had, in the case of colored soldiers as in the case of white soldiers.”

Grant further declared, “Non-acquiescence by the Confederate authorities in both or either of these propositions will be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and will be so treated by us.” Grant elaborated on this policy in a second message to Butler the next day:

“It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure (William T.) Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.”

This new policy deprived the Confederacy of desperately needed manpower by keeping captured soldiers in prison camps. It also provided an incentive for soldiers to avoid being captured. However, the policy condemned thousands of Federal soldiers to death because the Confederacy lacked the necessities to care for its own citizens, let alone prisoners of war. The Federal blockade and growing occupation of southern regions added to the Confederate shortages and indirectly harmed the prisoners even more.

General Robert E. Lee tried to personally appeal to Grant to reconsider, but Grant refused. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “We have done everything in our power to mitigate the suffering of prisoners and there is no further responsibility on our part.”

This month, it was reported that Federals had captured 146,634 Confederate troops since the war began. In response to alleged mistreatment of Federal prisoners, the Federal government decreased the ration allotment to Confederate captives. On the 30th, Grant directed Butler “to receive all the sick and wounded the Confederate authorities may send you, but send no more in exchange.”

In the South, Andersonville prison camp in southwestern Georgia soon became notorious for its horrid living conditions. It held nearly 30,000 prisoners by this month, or nearly three times its capacity. Prison Commandant Henry Wirz received orders to set a “dead line” within 15 feet of the prison walls. Any prisoner crossing this line would be shot by guards.

Photographs of emaciated Federal troops recently released from Confederate prisons appeared in northern illustrated newspapers and sparked outrage. An article in the New York Times declared that this treatment should be expected from slaveholders “born to tyranny and reared to cruelty.” Both the Committee on the Conduct of the War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission published reports on the condition of Confederate prison camps based on accounts from released or escaped prisoners.

Stanton declared, “The enormity of the crime committed by the rebels cannot but fill with horror the civilized world… There appears to have been a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment.” However, Confederate prisoners languished in similar living conditions, even though the Federal government had the resources to provide better care.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21524, 21597; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393; 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 2766-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 792, 797; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 604; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264

The Army of Northern Virginia Awaits Action

March 26, 1864 – Confederate scouts informed General Robert E. Lee that the officers’ wives in the Federal Army of the Potomac were leaving camp, indicating that the Federals were about to mobilize for a new offensive.

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

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained camped south of the Rapidan River, waiting for the battle season to begin again. Upon learning that Ulysses S. Grant had become general-in-chief of all Federal armies, Lee believed that Grant would stay in the Western Theater, where he was most familiar. He told Lieutenant General James Longstreet in eastern Tennessee that he suspected “the enemy’s great effort will be in the west, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.”

Lee told President Jefferson Davis that he was “not disposed to believe from what I now know, that the first important effort will be directed against Richmond.” With the Army of the Potomac having gained hardly any ground in three years, Lee reasoned that Grant would most likely just use it as a diversion while he focused on destroying the western Confederate armies.

When Lee received a copy of Grant’s General Order No. 1 declaring that his headquarters would be with the Army of the Potomac, Lee still maintained that Grant’s main focus would be on the west. Lee wrote Davis, “There was no apparent occasion for the publication at such a time and place of his intention to take up his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, and the announcement appears to me to be made with some hidden purpose.” Lee continued:

“There is to my mind an appearance of design about the order intended to mislead us as to the enemy’s intention, and if possible, induce corresponding preparation on our part. I cannot learn that the army of Gen. (George G.) Meade has been reinforced by any organized troops, nor can I learn of any coming east over the B&O Railroad which I have ordered to be watched closely.”

In fact, Brigadier General John D. Imboden, commanding Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley, had informed Lee that the “enemy was moving troops westwards over that road all last week.” Although this did not prove that the Federals were shifting troops from the Army of the Potomac to the west, it indicated some kind of buildup away from northern Virginia.

Lee further reasoned that the west would be where the action began because “the roads will probably be more favorable for active operations at an early day in the south (i.e., northern Georgia) than in Va. where it will be uncertain for more than a month.”

Lee explained, “I am inclined to believe that the first efforts of the enemy will be directed against Gen (Joseph E.) Johnston (commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee) or Gen Longstreet, most probably the former. If it succeeds, Richmond will no doubt be attacked.” But Lee “cannot do more than weigh probabilities, they are useful in stimulating and directing a vigilant observation of the enemy, and suggesting such a policy on our part as may determine his.” The best course of action would be to–

“… make the best preparations in our power to meet an advance in any quarter, but be careful not to suffer ourselves to be misled by feigned movements into strengthening one point at the expense of others. We should hold ourselves in constant readiness to concentrate as rapidly as possible wherever it may be necessary, but do nothing without reasonably certain information except prepare.”

Lee hoped that Johnston in northern Georgia and Longstreet in eastern Tennessee might fend off any Federal offensive in the west, writing:

“Energy and activity on our part, with a constant readiness to seize any opportunity to strike a blow, will embarrass, if not entirely thwart the enemy in concentrating his different armies, and compel him to conform his movements to ours. In the meantime, to guard against any contingency, everything not immediately required should be sent away from Richmond, and store of food and other supplies collected in suitable and safe places for the use of the troops that it may become necessary to assemble for its defense.”

All this changed when Lee received word that the officers’ wives in the Army of the Potomac had begun leaving the camps. As more news about Federal mobilization trickled in, Lee finally realized that the main thrust of the upcoming Federal offensive would be against his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee reported to Davis on the 28th:

“General Grant has returned from the West. He is at present with the Army of the Potomac, which is being reorganized and recruited. From the reports of our scouts the impression prevails in that army that he will operate it in the coming campaign. Every train brings it recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it.”

Lee also correctly reported that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had resumed command of his old IX Corps, which was assembling in Maryland, and that Major General Franz Sigel was preparing his Federal army for a thrust into the Shenandoah Valley. Lee wrote that Burnside was “organizing a large army at Annapolis, and it seems probable that additional troops are being sent to the valley.”

Lee expressed concern that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which had been wrecked numerous times by Confederate cavalry, was now operational from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, and it was “closely guarded along its whole extent.” This indicated “secrecy and preparation.”

Lee stated that Grant’s “plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power.”

To do this, Lee suggested that either Johnston or Longstreet launch an offensive: “If an aggressive movement can be made in the West, it will disconcert their plans and oblige them to conform to ours.” If that could not be done, “Longstreet should be held in readiness to be thrown rapidly in the valley, if necessary, to counteract any movement in that quarter, in accomplishing which I could unite with him, or he unite with me, should circumstances require it, on the Rapidan.”

Never before had the Army of Northern Virginia been in such danger. As the Federals massed on all fronts, Lee had just 40,000 effectives south of the Rapidan River. A.R. Lawton, the army quartermaster general, reported that the battered railroads were delivering more supplies than ever, even though they were on a “forced march.” Lawton worked to ensure that supplies continued arriving for the troops by rail because combat would soon resume.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45

The Grand Federal Military Strategy

March 17, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant met with Major General William T. Sherman at Nashville, where Grant issued his first order since becoming general-in-chief of all Federal armies.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

The two close friends began discussing military strategy when they met in the Tennessee capital. Grant explained that he would take up headquarters in the Eastern Theater, giving Sherman complete command of the West. Grant then issued General Order No. 1: “I assume command of the Armies of the United States, headquarters in the field, and until notice these will be those of the Army of the Potomac.”

One of the main reasons why Grant chose to accompany the Army of the Potomac was because three other generals in Virginia–Major General Benjamin F. Butler commanding the Army of the James, Major General Franz Sigel commanding the Army of West Virginia, and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside commanding IX Corps from the Army of the Ohio–all outranked the army commander, Major General George G. Meade, and Grant sought to prevent any jealousy over the fact that Meade led the largest Federal army.

As Grant and Sherman talked, they were in danger of the swarming newspaper reporters learning and possibly divulging their secret plans. So they boarded a train and traveled to Cincinnati. When they found that the train noise made it almost impossible to converse, they waited until they reached their destination and booked a room at the Burnet House, where they posted a guard at the door, laid out their maps, and got down to business.

By this time, Federal forces occupied the mouth of the Rio Grande, the entire Mississippi River including New Orleans, Tennessee from Memphis to Chattanooga, West Virginia, and part of Virginia north of the Rapidan River. They also occupied the ports of Norfolk and Fort Monroe in Virginia; Plymouth, Washington, and New Bern in North Carolina; Beaufort, Hilton Head, Folly and Morris islands in South Carolina; and Fernandina, St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Key West in Florida. From these occupation points, Grant envisioned a campaign in which every major Federal army would launch an offensive simultaneously.

Grant now commanded 662,000 officers and men in 22 army corps, the largest command any Federal general ever had up to that time. If he could put them all in motion at once, they could quickly destroy the dwindling Confederate armies. Grant’s strategy consisted of:

  • The Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan River and confronting General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia
  • The Army of the James moving up the Virginia Peninsula and threatening Richmond and Petersburg from the east
  • The Army of West Virginia clearing Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley
  • The Army of the Gulf moving east to threaten Mobile, Alabama
  • Sherman leading the Armies of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee in confronting General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee

Grant and Sherman would personally confront the two largest Confederate armies left in the field. Once Grant and Meade destroyed Lee’s army, they were expected to capture Richmond. Once Sherman destroyed Johnston’s army, he was expected to capture Atlanta.

A few days later, Grant headed back east and Sherman returned to Nashville, where he officially assumed Grant’s old command as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Near month’s end, Sherman issued orders closing the railroad line between Nashville and eastern Tennessee to all non-military traffic. When civilians protested that they needed the line to bring their goods to Nashville, Sherman instructed them to drive their goods and animals over the mountains by wagon like the old days because “his” railroad was too important to serve them.

In Virginia, Meade learned of Grant’s general order and wrote his wife, “I see General Grant’s assuming command and announcing that his headquarters will be with the Army of the Potomac, is in the public journals, and by to-morrow will be known in Richmond. Of course, this will notify the rebels where to look for active operations, and they will plan accordingly.”

Rumors began spreading among the Federal high command that Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose Confederate corps had been stationed in eastern Tennessee after its failed siege of Knoxville, would soon be rejoining Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Henry W. Halleck, now the Federal army chief of staff, notified Grant that “it is thought that Longstreet is now with Lee, and that some movement will soon be made.”

Arriving at Washington, Grant met briefly with President Abraham Lincoln and then returned to the Army of the Potomac. Grant instructed Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. The only point upon which I am now in doubt is, whether it will be better to cross the Rapidan above or below him.”



Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385-86, 395; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 966; 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 397-417; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 410; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22-26, 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500-01, 543

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid: Confederates Ponder Retaliation

March 5, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis held a cabinet meeting at Richmond to discuss what measures should be taken in response to the controversial Federal raid on Richmond.

Two days after Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was killed in the failed raid on Richmond, his father, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, came to Washington to ask his personal friend President Abraham Lincoln for information about his son.

Lincoln was aware that Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal command had fled to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal army at Fort Monroe after the raid, but nobody at Washington knew of Dahlgren’s death yet. Lincoln wrote Butler, “Admiral Dahlgren is here, and of course is very anxious about this son. Please send me at once all you know or can learn of his fate.”

Meanwhile, the South seethed with rage upon learning that papers on Dahlgren’s body called for liberated Federal prisoners of war to burn Richmond and kill top Confederate government officials. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, sent the photographic copies of these documents to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, and asked if he or his superiors had any prior knowledge of this plot.

Meade assured Lee that neither he nor the Lincoln administration “had authorized, sanctioned, or approved the burning of the city of Richmond and the killing of Mr. Davis and Cabinet.” Meade also forwarded Kilpatrick’s statement on the matter, which asserted that nobody higher in rank than Dahlgren knew of the plot.

There was no evidence to disprove Meade’s claim. However, Lincoln’s approval of the raid (without necessarily approving the raid’s specific objectives) indicated his urgency to end the war by any means necessary. As news of the raid spread across the North, the northern press took a much different view than the South. The New York Times called the raid a “complete success, resulting in the destruction of millions of dollars of public property.” But the paper either did not know or willfully omitted Dahlgren’s controversial intentions.

Southerners branded Colonel Dahlgren a war criminal, and his body, which had been buried in a shallow grave in Richmond, was unearthed and put on display. A correspondent from the Richmond Examiner reported that the body was–

“Stripped, robbed of every valuable, the fingers cut off for the sake of the diamond rings that encircled them. When the body was found by those sent to take charge of it, it was lying in a field stark naked, with the exception of the stocking. Some humane persons had lifted the corpse from the pike and thrown it over into the field, to save it from the hogs. The artificial leg worn by Dahlgren (who lost his leg at Gettysburg) was removed, and is now at General Elzey’s headquarters. It is of most beautiful design and finish.

“Yesterday afternoon, the body was removed from the car that brought it to the York River railroad depot, and given to the spot of earth selected to receive it. Where that spot is no one but those concerned in its burial know or care to tell. It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friend and relative at the North need inquire no further; this is all they will know–he is buried a burial that befitted the mission upon which he came. He ‘swept through the city of Richmond’ on a pine bier, and ‘written his name’ on the scroll of infamy, instead of ‘on the hearts of his countrymen,’ never to be erased. He ‘asked the blessing of Almighty God’ and his mission of rapine, murder and blood, and the Almighty cursed him instead.”

Lieutenant Colonel John Atkinson led the burial party, with instructions from Davis not to reveal the burial site. Kilpatrick’s Federal troopers destroyed property, including a grain mill, in King and Queen County near Carlton’s Store, in retaliation for Dahlgren’s death.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederate press called for retribution, and Davis met with his cabinet on the 5th to discuss what the administration should do about it. Most members present favored executing the prisoners taken from Dahlgren’s command, but Davis was firmly opposed. According to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin:

“A discussion ensued which became so heated as almost to create unfriendly feeling, by reason of the unshaken firmness of Mr. Davis, in maintaining that although these men merited a refusal to grant them quarter in the heat of battle, they had been received to mercy by their captors as prisoners of war, and such were sacred; and that we should be dishonored if harm should overtake them after their surrender, the acceptance of which constituted, in his judgment, a pledge that they should receive the treatment of prisoners of war.”

Secretary of War James A. Seddon asked Lee for advice since he had greater experience in dealing with prisoners. Seddon wrote in part, “My own inclinations are toward the execution of at least a portion of those captured at the time Colonel Dahlgren was killed. The question of what is best to be done is a grave and important one, and I desire to have the benefit of your views and any suggestions you may make.” Lee responded:

“I cannot recommend the execution of the prisoners that have fallen into our hands. Assuming that the address and special orders of Colonel Dahlgren correctly state his designs and intentions, they were not executed, and I believe, even in a legal point of view, acts in addition to intentions are necessary to constitute a crime. These papers can only be considered as evidence of his intentions. It does not appear how far his men were cognizant of them, or that his course was sanctioned by his Government. It is only known that his plans were frustrated by a merciful Providence, his forces scattered, and he killed. I do not think it, therefore, to visit upon the captives the guilt of his intentions. I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.”

Davis ultimately agreed, and Dahlgren’s men were not executed.

On Sunday the 6th, a copy of the previous day’s Richmond Sentinel was delivered to Meade’s Army of the Potomac headquarters. From this, Meade received the first definitive news that Dahlgren was dead. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“The Richmond Sentinel of March 5 has been received, which announces the capturing at King and queen (county) of a part of Dahlgren’s party, reported 90 men, and that Colonel Dahlgren was killed in the skirmish. I fear the account is true.”

Meade wrote his wife, “You have doubtless seen that Kilpatrick’s raid was an utter failure. I did not expect much from it. Poor Dahlgren I am sorry for.” When Admiral Dahlgren learned of his son’s death, he lamented in his diary, “How busy is death–oh, how busy indeed!”



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-81; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 203; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 407; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6593; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Pickett’s New Bern Campaign

February 2, 1864 – Confederates captured one of the largest Federal ships on the North Carolina coast, but their main mission was more difficult to accomplish.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederates in North Carolina, sought to take back New Bern, one of the largest cities in the state, because the Federal warehouses there could feed Confederates in both North Carolina and Virginia through the winter. Pickett planned to advance on New Bern with three infantry columns, supported by Commander John T. Wood’s naval flotilla on the Neuse River.

As the month began, Pickett had moved within striking distance of the town, with the Federals unaware of his approach. Pickett traveled with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s division as it came upon Batchelder’s Creek from the northwest. Federal advance units destroyed the bridges over the creek before retreating. Hoke’s men made makeshift bridges out of nearby logs and drove the Federals back into town. The Confederates halted on the night of the 1st, as Pickett awaited word from his other two columns and Wood’s navy.

Pickett’s second column, led by Brigadier General Seth M. Barton, advanced from the southwest with orders to destroy railroad tracks and telegraph lines along the way. The march was slowed by rain and mud, and locals warned Barton that the Federal defenses outside New Bern were “of the most formidable character, deemed by the enemy impregnable.” As Barton advanced, he came upon an unexpected line of Federal forts south of the Trent River. He reported:

“I was therefore unprepared to encounter obstacles so serious, and was forced to the conviction that they were insurmountable by any means at my disposal. Had it even been practicable to carry the fortifications on the south side of Trent, the possession of them would have been useless for the accomplishment of our object.”

Meanwhile, Pickett’s third column under Colonel James Dearing stopped at Fort Anderson, northeast of New Bern, where Dearing judged the fort too strong to take. Wood’s naval cutters began moving down the Neuse as planned, but two of Pickett’s three columns had not reached their objective in this operation, which relied on the precise execution of all its elements to succeed.

Pickett continued waiting to either receive word from his other column commanders or hear gunfire to the south. Hoke later wrote, “We remained in front of New Berne all day Tuesday (the 2nd) waiting Barton’s move, when, much to my disappointment, a dispatch was received from him stating that it was impossible for him to cross the creek.”

Federals soon discovered the Confederate presence, ruining the element of surprise. Pickett urged Barton to join forces with Hoke, but Barton stated he would have to try finding another place to cross the river. Pickett reported, “Thus, the earliest possible moment at which he could have joined me would have been the evening of the 3rd instant. I could not have attacked before the 4th instant.”

Infuriated, Pickett ordered a general withdrawal. He blamed Barton for the failure, but he also blamed General Robert E. Lee, who had devised the three-pronged plan. Pickett wrote, “Had I have had the whole force in hand, I have but little doubt that we could have gone in easily taking the place by surprise.”

But as it stood, this was a Confederate failure. The Petersburg (Virginia) Register reported simply that “the place was stronger than we anticipated.” Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer, commanding the Federals at New Bern, called his losses during Pickett’s operation “trifling.”

Cmdr J.T. Wood | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile on the Neuse, Wood’s flotilla continued downriver as planned. Using muffled oars, the boats quietly came upon the U.S.S. Underwriter, a four-gun sidewheel steamer and the largest Federal ship in the area. The Federals discovered the approaching boats at 2:30 a.m. on the 2nd, when they were within less than 300 feet of the Underwriter. The alarms were sounded, but the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers.

The Confederates boarded the vessel and engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, commanding the Underwriter, was killed in the fighting. The Confederates captured the vessel, but they could not get her steam up, and the Federal shore batteries began firing on her. Wood ordered the ship burned to prevent recapture.

Wood relayed the valor of the Confederate marines to Colonel Lloyd J. Beall, Confederate Marine Corps commandant. Lieutenant George W. Gift, an officer in the Confederate flotilla, declared, “I am all admiration for Wood. He is modesty personified, conceives boldly and executes with skill and courage.” Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory called this action a “brilliant exploit,” and Wood later received the thanks of the Confederate Congress. But the Federals still held New Bern.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-94; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 365-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 459-60; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 477, 524

Confederates Target New Bern

January 20, 1864 – Confederate commanders looked to take back a key point on the North Carolina coast to better feed their armies.

Federal forces had captured New Bern, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, in early 1862. Since then, the Confederates made sporadic attempts to take it back, but by this time, it had become an important objective because the Federal warehouses there could feed the Confederate armies through the winter.

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

New Bern was especially important to General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in ravaged, war-torn Virginia. If Confederate forces could seize the town, they could use the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad to transport the foodstuffs and supplies north into Virginia.

Now that the Federal and Confederate armies in northern Virginia had gone into winter quarters, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”

Lee acknowledged that the Federal garrison at New Bern had been strongly fortified, but it “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” So were the Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby waters.

Lee stated, “A bold party could descend the Neuse (River) in boats at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.” To do this, and to secure the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” there, “a bold naval officer” and experienced men would be needed. Lee asked, “Can they be had?”

Davis responded two days later, “Your suggestion is approved, but who can and will execute it?” Davis stated that a naval fleet could not be assembled any time soon. He also suggested that Lee should lead the New Bern operation himself:

“You could give it form, which would insure success… without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered… It would be well to send the brigade, and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”

Lee waited over two weeks to reply, “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” Without acknowledging Davis’s offer to personally lead the troops in the attack, Lee stated he would take command, “but I consider my presence here (in northern Virginia) always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” Lee also reiterated the need for a gunboat fleet, writing, “With their aid I think success would be certain.”

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Leadership ultimately devolved upon Major General George Pickett, who had taken command of the Department of North Carolina last fall. Pickett’s force would consist of 13,000 infantrymen, 900 cavalry troopers, and 17 guns. Lee worked with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, Pickett’s second-in-command, to develop the attack plan. It began with 14 naval cutters under Commander John T. Wood clearing the Federal gunboats off the Neuse River, thus “driving the enemy from their guns” on shore. Pickett would then launch a three-pronged advance:

  • An infantry force, Brigadier General Seth M. Barton’s 600 cavalry, and 14 guns would attack New Bern from the southwest, below the Trent River.
  • An infantry force, Colonel James Dearing’s 300 cavalry, and three guns would advance from the northeast and capture Fort Anderson, across the Neuse from New Bern.
  • Hoke’s division, joined by Pickett, would advance on New Bern from the northwest.

In addition to these joint army-navy operations, Brigadier General William H.C. Whiting, commanding Confederates at Wilmington, would move 35 miles southeast to attack the Federal garrison at Morehead City. Lee wrote Pickett, “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements.” Lee recommended troop placements and authorized Pickett to abort the attack if necessary. He then stated, “If successful, everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.”

From there, Lee urged Pickett to oversee “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.” Offering more specifics, Lee instructed, “If you have to use the telegraph, merely say, ‘The day is’–name the day of the month; he (Whiting) will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”

Lee directed Hoke to personally deliver the instructions to Pickett and “explain to him fully the plan of operations.” As Hoke moved his Confederates south into North Carolina, he was to coordinate efforts with draft officials “to get conscripts and recruits.”

The mobilization began on the 30th, and Pickett’s forces began arriving outside New Bern the next day. The operation continued into February.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524