Lee created Shenandoah front

Strategy: Confederate commander resolves to create a diversion from the fighting at Richmond by taking the offense in western Virginia.

October 12, 2003|By Jessika Rao | Jessika Rao,SUN STAFF

In the spring of 1864, events of the Civil War became a strategic dance between two military giants, Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was made commander-in-chief of all Union armies in March, taking to the battlefield with the Army of the Potomac. Lee had been in command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia since June 1862.

Both men prepared to meet face to face, and orchestrated their troops in the Shenandoah Valley in preparation.

By May 1, Grant was determined to capture the Confederacy's capital of Richmond, Va., as he accumulated an army of more than 141,000 men on the north side of the Rapidan River. Union troops stationed in Washington and Baltimore totaled 50,000 more men.

"Lee's army and Richmond being the greater objects toward which our attention must be directed in the next campaign, it is desirable to unite all the force we can against them," Grant wrote to Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler on April 2.

Lee had fewer than 50,000 men positioned along the south bank of the Rapidan. Despite being outnumbered, Lee's army was able to hold off the Union offensive in the Battle of the Wilderness, from May into early June 1864.

At various locations, such as at the Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor, Grant would attempt to maneuver around Lee's fighting flank and force him out of position. But Lee well anticipated his enemy's move and shifted his men accordingly, earning tactical victories.

A diversion

On June 13, as Grant's army slipped away from Cold Harbor and headed south of the James River, Lee chose not to pursue an attack, but instead chose to create a possible diversion in the Shenandoah Valley.

Under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, Lee sent about 13,000 men into the Valley in an apparent attempt to threaten Washington.

However, Lee was reluctant to take men away from his main force in order to protect the Valley.

In a reply to Gen. Braxton Bragg, the Confederacy's military adviser, Lee wrote June 11:

"If it is deemed prudent to hazard the defense of Richmond, the interests involved by thus diminishing the force here, I will do so. I think this is what the enemy would desire."

In a letter to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis on June 6, Lee also mentioned the need for "some good officer" to be sent into the Shenandoah Valley and, by combining all the forces, "drive the enemy out."

According to writer Noah A. Trudeau in his 1996 essay, "A Mere Question of Time: Robert E. Lee from the Wilderness to Appomattox Court House," Lee offered to "return the 2,100 men he had `borrowed' from the Valley theater, but pointedly did not mention the possibility of contributing any more."

It is possible that Lee was pressured by reports that said large Union forces were descending upon the valley. Or it is possible that he saw the benefit of a diversionary tactic by such a move.

Taking into consideration Lee's decision not to attack Grant while he was crossing the James, could it be that Lee's military strategy was based on conservation and politics? Trudeau seems to think so.

Lee had faced with a similar situation two years before. At that time he sought an attack against the Northern forces.

The difference in 1864 was the coming presidential election and the possibility that President Abraham Lincoln would lose.

Trudeau quotes Lee in a letter written to his wife a year earlier in which Lee predicted that there "will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go on that basis. We have only therefore to resist manfully."

Trudeau then comments:

"In order for the Confederacy to bargain effectively with the new Union government, it needed viable armies in the field; consequently, Lee's impulse after Cold Harbor was to preserve his force."

The consequences were crucial. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would defend Petersburg for almost nine months, and his forces in the Shenandoah faced a sequence of defeats.

The valley was not chosen as a strategic strongpoint by accident. Known as the "granary of Virginia," the Shenandoah was important for its agricultural abundance, being barely scarred by the fighting. The Confederate army depended on the Valley for its produce, cattle and supplies.

Burning the Valley

Grant was commanding his own strategy in the valley through Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. To cripple Confederate support in the valley, the Union troops destroyed the area in a campaign known as "The Burning."

In a letter to Maj. Gen. David Hunter dated Aug. 5, 1864, Grant wrote: "In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to go first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command; such as cannot be consumed, destroy."

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