Thursday, January 3, 2013

January 4, 1863 (Sunday): Lee Advises

Nansemond County Courthouse-Suffolk VA (

Camp near Fredericksburg, Va., January 4, 1863
Major General GUSTAVUS W. SMITH,
Commanding, Richmond, Va.:
    GENERAL: Your letter of the 1st instant has been received. As you seem to be certain that the enemy are re-enforcing Suffolk and passing troops from that point to New Berne I would recommend that you collect a force at Goldsborough and within supporting distance of it adequate to oppose them. I do not think that the enemy can bring into the field in that region at present a large or stable force-their troops must be new and not very reliable-nor have they any officer there that I am aware of in whom much confidence is reposed by his Government. It is as impossible for him to have a large operating army at every assailable point in our territory as it is for us to keep one to defend it. We must move our troops from point to point as required, and by close observation and accurate information the true point of attack can generally be ascertained. I may be mistaken, but I have thought that the troops at your disposal could be sufficient to drive back the threatened incursions of the enemy south of James River until he is re-enforced from some of his armies now in the field. General Burnside has all his army between Fredericksburg and Aquia Creek, with the addition of Sigel's corps. His own headquarters are near Brooke's Station, nor is there any indication of an embarkation or retrograde movement or going into winter quarters. I think it dangerous to diminish this army until something can be ascertained of the intentions of that opposed to it, and I hope you will be able by judicious arrangement and concentration of the troops under your command to protect the frontier line of North Carolina. Partial encroachments of the enemy we must expect, but they can always be recovered, and any defeat of their large army will reinstate everything. From information received from the Secretary of War I yesterday put Ransom's division in motion to Hanover Junction, and will continue him to Richmond unless I receive other information. You will find it necessary in North Carolina to dispose your troops so that they can march to the points required instead of trusting to the railroads, otherwise it will be impossible to collect your troops as speedily as necessary. The railroads must be reserved for transporting munitions of war. I would recommend that you take the field in person and endeavor to get out troops from the State of North Carolina for her defense. Wilmington should be defended at all hazards.
     I have the honor to be, with great respect, your obedient servant,

    R. E. LEE,

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 18, Part 1, Page 819.

The Union Army had a foothold in North Carolina at New Berne.  But this was less an advantage than would appear on the surface.  Richmond could have been threatened from forces moving up from eastern NC but weather, logistics, and unhealthy climates all conspired to keep this from happening.  Plus, the single minded focus on defending Washington and defeating Lee's army meant there would not be enough available force to open a second front in North Carolina.  Here, Lee is corresponding with G.W. Smith.  Smith had been a disappointment in the Seven Days battles but in maintaining forces around Richmond during Lee's offensives in 1862 he had done well.  But in February of 1863 he would resign after being passed over for promotion.  He had begun the war as one of the most highly regarded officers available to either side, but his fall had been precipitous and mainly self-inflicted.

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