Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 31 - The other decision point at which Lee had a chance to defeat Grant occurred two weeks into the campaign.  Lee and Grant were at Spotsylvania.  Both sides had lost heavily, Grant's army more so than Lee:  a mid-May field return showed that, excluding the army's cavalry corps, which was raiding to the south, and recent reinforcements, the Army of the Potomac was down to 56,000, just 64 percent of the infantry and artillerists with which Grant had crossed the Rapidan on May 4.

[By the way, for you purists out there:  I know that officially George Gordon Meade, not Grant, commanded the Army of the Potomac.  I use Grant's name because he called the shots and, organizational charts notwithstanding, was Lee's real opponent.]


Left:  P. G. T. Beauregard
Center:  Benjamin F. Butler
Right:  The Bermuda Hundred sector

Miles to the south, the Union Army of the James, led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, had landed at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox Rivers.  From that point, Butler could threaten the cities of Richmond and Petersburg.  He in fact had orders to go for Richmond.  Luckily for the Confederates, Butler was a non-professional of limited tactical ability, appointed to high command because of his political clout.  Opposing Butler was "Old Bory":  Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard--savor the name!

Butler had about 33,000 men.  When he first landed at Bermuda Hundred the Confederates had almost no one in position to oppose him, but thanks to their rail net and Butler's cautious initial moves, by mid-May the Confederates had 20,000 men facing him.  With that number, Beauregard believed he could neutralize Butler, but he thought it would take another 15,000 troops to win a decisive victory.  Those 15,000 men could only come from Lee's army.

An excerpt from And Keep Moving On:

Getting those reinforcements was not out of the question, Beauregard thought, but it would require a daring expedient. Why not have Lee send the needed 15,000 at once, then fall back swiftly to the Richmond defenses where he could escape destruction from Grant's much larger army? As soon as the new troops arrived, Beauregard would attack, wreck Butler's army, then turn with his full command, join up with Lee, and deliver a crushing blow against Grant's army. Without pausing to commit the plan to paper, Beauregard sent [Col. W. H.] Stevens galloping off to Richmond with instructions to lay it verbally before President [Jefferson] Davis or his military adviser, [General] Braxton Bragg.

The sun was not yet up, Davis was ill, and his aides refused to disturb him at such an ungodly hour. But Stevens was able to meet with Bragg, who decided that he should discuss the matter with Beauregard in person. When the military adviser reached Fort Darling later that morning, Beauregard once again rehearsed the plan, ending with a exhortation: "Bragg, circumstances have thrown the fate of the Confederacy in your hands and mine. Let us play our parts boldly and fearlessly! Issue those orders and I'll carry them out to the best of my ability. I'll guarantee success!"

Bragg rode back to Richmond to discuss the plan with Davis. From his demeanor, Beauregard evidently thought Bragg favored the idea, but in fact Bragg excoriated it, giving Davis seven different objections, the most important of which were that Lee's army could not retreat such a distance (sixty miles) without grave danger and that the withdrawal was unnecessary: Beauregard's present force was ample to crush Butler "if promptly and vigorously used." Davis went in person to hear Beauregard's proposal, but purely as a courtesy, for he had already made up his mind to veto it. Beauregard, the president said, must attack with the troops on hand.

Here I need an enabling counterfactual: What if Davis had referred Beauregard's scheme to Lee?  That allows me to proceed to the main counterfactual:  What if Lee endorsed the plan and it was implemented?

The map at left can help us get an idea of what needed to occur.  Lee would have had to fall back from Spotsylvania, as he did anyway just six days after the plan was discussed.  Beauregard's plan called for Lee to withdraw sixty miles into the Richmond entrenchments, but Beauregard did not know, as Lee surely did, that a good defensive position was available behind the North Anna River, where high bluffs on the southern bank handily dominate the northern bank.

The North Anna line would have met Bragg's objection about the danger of a sixty-mile retreat--historically, Lee was able to fall back to the North Anna with no trouble--and it would have served admirably as a place to fend off Grant while Beauregard eliminated Butler.  Since Butler is widely considered one of the worst generals of the war--"as helpless as a child on the battlefield," one subordinate snorted--and since he would have fought with his back to a tidal estuary, with no means of escape aside from what few troops might be able to scramble aboard transport ships--I think the chances of Beauregard achieving his objective are substantial.

Such a disaster would have damaged Grant's military reputation substantiallyl--he, after all, had ordered Butler into that position, which in hindsight would have seemed like asking Butler to stick his head in a sausage grinder.  The defeat, involving the loss of an army belonging to a general who was a darling among Radical Republicans, might actually have diminished Lincoln's chances of renomination at the party convention in early June.

These potential ramifications, though interesting, don't get us to the "consequent" under direct consideration:  whether Lee, reinforced by Beauregard's victorious forces, could then have defeated Grant.  The situation would have developed rapidly and in a variety of ways.  Grant would surey have pursued Lee and looked for a chance to attack him.  If he got a clear glimpse of the Confederate gambit, he might have tried to reinforce Butler, using Federal sea power to counter the rail transfer of Lee's troops to Butler.  Or he might have hit Lee hard in the hope of destroying Lee's reduced army.  The elimination of Lee's army would not only have nullified Beauregard's counterstroke but probably been fatal to the defense of Richmond.  Basically the plan Beauregard proposed involved creating a` very fluid situation and betting that the Confederates could capitalize on it more effectively than the Federals.

Because of the situation's fluidity, it seems unprofitable to speculate about specific scenarios--to use Prof. Lebow's phrasing, these multiply exponentially.  It's perhaps more useful to think about the major structural considerations that would have shifted the balance of favorable outcome sets toward one side or another:

First, I think the odds of Grant decisively beating Lee in a single battle are slim.  Lee was a good defensive commander, as his handling of the battle of Antietam illustrates, and in any event

Second, Civil War armies were inherently resilient.  Their destruction occurred through encirclement and siege (think of Fort Donelson, Harpers Ferry, and Vicksburg) rather than open battle.  Nashville is usually considered the only time a Civil War army was more or less destroyed in battle.

Third, the Confederates could shift troops faster by rail than the Federals could by river--even assuming equivalent travel speeds (a big assumption), the river lines of communication were several times longer than the railroad lines.  This would have given the Confederates a major advantage.

Fourth, Beauregard was among the better Civil War generals, Butler among the worst.  That, coupled with,

Fifth, Butler occupied an unusually vulnerable position, given that his line of retreat was cut off by the James River estuary,

. . . suggests that, on balance, the key factors favored the Confederates.

The only wild card I can think of is that at this juncture, Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan with 10,000 cavalry was at Haxall's Landing, on the north bank of the James River a few miles east of Bermuda Hundred.  Provided that Grant recognized the danger to Butler fast enough, he could have transferred Sheridan to Butler's aid by river transports shuttling the short distance up the James River estuary.  That would have given Butler a good chance of fending off Beauregard long enough to do what he did historically--barricade himself behind a belt of entrenchments between the James and Appomattox Rivers.

The utility of this counterfactual is not so much whether Beauregard's plan would have worked.  Rather, it's that it prompts reflection on questions that might otherwise not get raised.  Here's one I have never seen before in any literature I have read on Lee's generalship:  If Beauregard could come up with such a plan, why didn't Lee?

We have no documentation to suggest that Lee considered such a plan and rejected it.  But that should not lead us to assume that he never pondered the option.  We know from other events--for example, the encouragement that Lee gave Stonewall Jackson, while Lee was Davis's military adviser in 1862, to undertake the Valley Campaign--that Lee understood the exploitation of interior lines and the value of using victory over a smaller force create the conditions for victory over a larger one.  We also know from the record of Lee's whole career that he didn't mind taking risks, even long ones, if there was a chance for a big pay-off.  And we know that the development Lee most feared was getting backed into the Richmond entrenchments and besieged.  Taking these factors together, it seems to me that:

1.  It would be surprising if Lee did not at some point toy with an idea similar to Beauregard's;

2.  He apparently did not think the plan favored the Confederates more than the Federals, or he may have thought he had a better chance to defeat Grant from the position he already occupied at Spotsylvania; and

3.  Regardless of the potential merit of falling back toward Richmond temporarily in terms of assisting Beauregard, it involved unacceptable trade-offs.  If, for example,  Lee had to retreat precipitately from the North Anna line in order to parry an attack by Grant, he probably could not have prevented Grant from gaining control of the Virginia Central Railroad.  And if he had to retreat into the Richmond trench system, he may well have considered the most likely outcome would be a siege, especially if

4.  He harbored doubts about Beauregard's ability to gain a complete triumph over Butler.

One final counterfactual:  Suppose that, by whatever means, Lee had succeeded in wresting the initiative from Grant.  As Michael Palmer points out in his provocative study Lee Moves North, his record on the strategic offensive--Antietam, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station--is a zero-for-three series of defeats.  Against McClellan in the first instance, and Meade in the other two, Lee escaped destruction.  But against Grant?

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