When Robert E. Lee first heard that Ulysses S. Grant had been promoted and given command of all the Union's armies, he initially thought that Grant might go over to the defensive in Virginia and continue the successful Union offensive in the West. This was a plausible plan, and perhaps Lee, in Grant's shoes, might have reinforced the Union armies in the West and used them to mop up Mobile, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Grant could then march north and take Richmond from the south.
Then Lee heard that Grant was heavily reinforcing the Army of the Potomac and that Grant himself would make his headquarters with that army. Lee realized that Grant intended to make a serious offensive in Virginia, which would become known as the Overland Campaign.
This realization guided Lee's preparations for the campaign season of 1864. From June 1862 through July 1863, Lee had chosen an aggressive offensive strategy in an effort to conquer a peace. Lee invaded the North twice and was turned back twice--at Antietam and Gettysburg. While Lee had won many victories, these victories came at the cost of many Southern casualties, and as the war entered its fourth campaign season, the Southern manpower reserves were nearly exhausted.
Lee knew that the opposite was true of the Union. Due to its much larger population, immigration, and the decision by the Union to enlist Blacks as soldiers, the Union manpower reserves were larger than ever--and the Army of the Potomac would be larger than ever. The changed circumstances meant that Robert E. Lee had to completely change his tactics for the 1864 campaign. In 1864, the Army of Northern Virginia would fight on the defensive and from behind fieldworks whenever possible.
On this day 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee wrote to the Confederate Engineer Bureau and requested additional engineers for the Army of Northern Virginia, to help build those fieldworks.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, March 30, 1864.
Colonel A. L. RIVES,
In Charge of Engineer Bureau:
COLONEL: It is necessary that the engineer corps of this army be reorganized and increased commensurate with the wants of the service. The engineer officers attached to the army have done well, but their numbers are inadequate to the duties. I desire Colonel Talcott, with the First Engineer Regiment,to join me early next month. In addition to this regiment, there will be six pioneer companies, under engineer officers, besides the officers attached to the staff of the army. This would make an appropriate command for a brigadier-general, who should be chief engineer of the army. I do not know whether there is authority for an officer of this grade holding that position, but I must beg for a suitable officer for the duty, with such rank as the law allows. Among the advantages of having a general officer as chief engineer is that he may exercise authority over the troops engaged in engineer constructions on which the whole army is at times employed. The only officers whom I know available for this duty who appear to me to be suitable are General M. L. Smith, Colonel W. H. Stevens, and General G. W. Custis Lee. The first, I understand, is ordered on duty at the bureau, and his services there may be more necessary than in the field. The duties of the second I know are important where he is, and I have reason to believe that a transfer at this time would be embarrassing to him. The third also has peculiar duties which prevent my applying for him, but if he can be spared I should like very much to have him. Any good officer, bold, energetic, and intelligent, who can discharge the duties, will be most acceptable to me. If he cannot he will be a hinderance. I request that you will see the Secretary of War on this subject at your earliest convenience, and ask his immediate consideration and action in this matter. General Grant is present with the Army of the Potomac. It is being reorganized and required; many additions are being daily made to it. The impression prevails that Grant will operate it. If, so he will concentrated a large force in Virginia on one or more lines, and we must put forth all our strength to oppose him. I shall want all the assistance I can get. There is no time to lose.
I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,