What Could Lee Have Done Differently in 1864?

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Correct. Getting trapped in the Wilderness was the last thing that Grant would have wanted, but the slower moving wagon trains of the AotP, and Lee's quick response resulted in that happening. Longstreet's I Corps did come up by the morning of the 2nd day of the conflict, and was able to mount a serious flank counterattack that almost broke through Hancock's II Corps to the Brock Road.
Grant and Meade would have been perfectly happy to have Lee let them get through the Wilderness without a fight. It would have been a plus for their side with no casualties.

At the same time, they were perfectly willing to fight Lee if he came after them there. Grant and Meade had discussed it before starting. They were absolutely on the same page about this -- so much so that Meade actually orders the Army to turn towards Lee's advance before he notifies Grant that Lee's approach has been detected.

Grant viewed the purpose of maneuvering as being to close with the enemy and fight him, hopefully with an advantage gained by the maneuver. At all times throughout the war, he saw the enemy army as the focal point.
 

jcaesar

Corporal
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Aug 28, 2020
I am just beginning with reading „Honour and Violence in the South“ but am already suspecting that Davis wasn‘t maybe that much delusional (or lunatic) but rather driven by a peculiar understanding of honour. But I´ll have to read the book first to know better....

There were contrasting views that I have seen written about and even in some of the art from 1865 if defeat is dishonor and if death is preferable to dishonor.

F39-EAAA4-EA01-49-B9-9511-D8-C6-ED902-F40.jpg
 
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Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
Grant and Meade would have been perfectly happy to have Lee let them get through the Wilderness without a fight. It would have been a plus for their side with no casualties.

At the same time, they were perfectly willing to fight Lee if he came after them there. Grant and Meade had discussed it before starting. They were absolutely on the same page about this -- so much so that Meade actually orders the Army to turn towards Lee's advance before he notifies Grant that Lee's approach has been detected.

Grant viewed the purpose of maneuvering as being to close with the enemy and fight him, hopefully with an advantage gained by the maneuver. At all times throughout the war, he saw the enemy army as the focal point.
This is pretty interesting - where did you read about them talking about fighting Lee in the Wilderness?
 

David Knight

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Feb 26, 2012
Location
Pontefract, Yorkshire.
In late 1864 the best thing that RE Lee could have done is stage a military coup. Whilst I normally think this a total no-no; to remove Jeff Davis and his cabal would have seen the war end sooner. The status of Lee would have been high enough to take most of the public with him?
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
This is pretty interesting - where did you read about them talking about fighting Lee in the Wilderness?
I have seen it in a few places over the years and there is a point in an April letter to Meade from Grant in April where Grant describes his plan for the campaign (overall and then specifically for Meade). In it, he says that they will go over it in person. I will check to see if I have a more specific reference.

The sequence in the Wilderness is reflected in these messages on May 5th:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Old Wilderness Tavern, May 5, 1864.
(Received 7.30 a.m.)
Lieutenant-General GRANT:
The enemy have appeared in force on the Orange pike, and are now reported forming line of battle in front of Griffin's division, Fifth Corps. I have directed General Warren to attack them at once with his whole force. Until this movement of the enemy is developed, the march of the corps must be suspended. I have, therefore, sent word to Hancock not to advance beyond Todd's Tavern for the present. I think the enemy is trying to delay our movement, and will not give battle, but of this we shall soon see. For the present I will stop here, and have stopped our trains.
GEO. G. MEADE.
-----
HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES,
Germanna Ford, May 5, 1864--8.24 a.m.
General MEADE:
Your note giving movement of enemy and your dispositions received. Burnside's advance is now crossing the river. I will have Ricketts' division relieved and advanced at once, and urge Burnside's crossing. As soon as I can see Burnside I will go forward. If any opportunity presents itself for pitching into a part of Lee's army, do so without giving time for disposition.
U.S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General.
Major-General WARREN:
I send you the above. Wright is advancing on the Spotswood road. Attack as soon as you can, and communicate, if possible, with Wright.
GEO. G. MEADE,
Major-General.
-----
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
May 5, 1864--9 a.m.
Lieutenant-General GRANT:
A Mr. Wyckoff, a Northern miner, whom I have met and believe to be reliable, has sent me word that a person from Orange Court-House yesterday told him that Breckinridge and Polk had joined Lee. I send you this for what it is worth. Warren is making his disposition to attack, and Sedgwick to support him. Nothing immediate from the front. I think, still, Lee is simply making a demonstration to gain time. I shall, if such is the case, punish him. If he is disposed to fight this side of Mine Run at once, he shall be accommodated.
GEO. G. MEADE,
Major-General.
-----
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
May 5, 1864--9.20 a.m.
Lieutenant-General GRANT:
I ordered General Ricketts to hold the roads leading from the enemy's line to our right flank. I am informed you have ordered him forward as one of Burnside's divisions has arrived. I would suggest Burnside's division relieving Ricketts' on the roads, also a small party of cavalry I have in front of Ricketts. Ricketts having received my order after yours is awaiting your action on this suggestion.
GEO. G. MEADE,
Major-General.
There is no difference between them here unless it is on minor details. They are of one mind: the enemy has shown up -- hit him.
 

jcaesar

Corporal
Joined
Aug 28, 2020
In late 1864 the best thing that RE Lee could have done is stage a military coup. Whilst I normally think this a total no-no; to remove Jeff Davis and his cabal would have seen the war end sooner. The status of Lee would have been high enough to take most of the public with him?

That is not an American understanding of civil-military relations.

 
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Marse Robert

Cadet
Joined
Jun 30, 2021
In late 1864 the best thing that RE Lee could have done is stage a military coup. Whilst I normally think this a total no-no; to remove Jeff Davis and his cabal would have seen the war end sooner. The status of Lee would have been high enough to take most of the public with him?
This reminds me of a conversation between Lee and B.H. Hill referenced in Grant and Lee by J.F.C. Fuller:

‘“If we establish our independence the people will make you Mr. Davis’s successor.” “Never,” answered Lee, “…I shall not do the people the injustice to accept high civil office with those questions it has not been my business to become familiar.” The rest of the conversation is illuminating:

“Well, but, General,” said Hill, “history does not sustain your view. Caesar and Frederick of Prussia and Bonaparte were great statesmen as well as great generals.”

“And great tyrants,” he promptly responded. “I speak of the proper rule in republics, where, I think, we should have neither military statesmen nor political generals.”

“But Washington was both, and yet not a tyrant.”

With a beautiful smile he responded, “Washington was an exception to all rule, and there was none like him.”’ (p. 122)
 

Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
There were contrasting views that I have seen written about and even in some of the art from 1865 if defeat is dishonor and if death is preferable to dishonor.
Well...I unfortunately do not know enough about the matter at the moment to judge anything...but from just a gut feeling I deem it somehow telling that somebody should hang up such a mantra right over his (eg) breakfast table...as if he wants to convince himself (hence he originally should have thought quite otherwise...)
 

Piedone

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Oct 8, 2020
Honor Culture is a form of delusion. It is based on perception, not reality. Adherents violently attack those who would challenge their image with the truth.
Definitely. And hence it isn ´t a very successful method to manage reality (banzai-charges come to one ´s mind) - I just wanted to show that I deem it somehow improbable that Davis shouldn ´t have realized that further resistance was without any prospect of success (at least after the fall of Richmond he should have known better).
If his (maybe rather strange) perception of „honour“ was driving him then his escape plans are making more sense (as also the confederate stance at Hampton Roads does).
That‘s all in accordance to a victorian world where eg duels were still a widely accepted method to settle matters...
But of course I am not saying that such a stance is preferable or laudable or advisable (or....hell no....romantic...) - it‘ s just another aspect to show how strange Victorians sometimes thought and acted (something one could easily overlook as their literature is still that influential and familiar to most of us....)
 

Piedone

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Joined
Oct 8, 2020
There were contrasting views that I have seen written about and even in some of the art from 1865 if defeat is dishonor and if death is preferable to dishonor.
On second thought I deem it also very telling that Lee is depicted on this picture.
This might maybe explain why everybody in the after-war South was so mad about Lee.
With his record of military successes he was the only southern general who could (in a victorian world) claim such a mantra credibly.
Might it be that you had to struggle until the last moment to make surrender somehow acceptable or „honourable“ in such a culture?
 

atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
I wonder if it was possible for Lee to have recalled his units deployed elsewhere before the 64 campaign started, thus giving him his full force to hit Grant in the wilderness.
The other thing I think Lee should have pressed for was command over all of Virginia and North Carolina.
The claim that Lee, Davis should have known the war was lost is not supported by the facts. The confederates had over 100,000 men under arms and vast swaths of territory. The chance for victory only ended with the shameful surrender of Johnston.
 

wausaubob

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Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
He could have admitted he had been wrong. He could have admitted that Winfield Scott and Lee's cousin, USN Captain and Admiral Lee had been right. He had the choice to make. Once the lines were established at Petersberg he could have opened correspondence with Grant to gain information about what was going to required in terms of surrender.
When General Lee saw the Confederate Congress, he could have refused to sacrifice anymore lives for a collection of fools.
 

Lubliner

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Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
He could have admitted he had been wrong. He could have admitted that Winfield Scott and Lee's cousin, USN Captain and Admiral Lee had been right. He had the choice to make. Once the lines were established at Petersberg he could have opened correspondence with Grant to gain information about what was going to required in terms of surrender.
When General Lee saw the Confederate Congress, he could have refused to sacrifice anymore lives for a collection of fools.
Didn't the confederacy try that when the 'peace council' met on a vessel in Hampton Roads? Lee wasn't a part of the circle but Lincoln, Grant and Sherman were. For Lee to do many of these suggestions would be an improbable step away from his own role in the war. That is called usurpation of power, and something that would not be given much real thought by General Lee.
@Piedone the mantra is "Death before Dishonor", and we must understand what dishonor in an army is. To rape and pillage, or deprive and kill innocent non-combatants is one. Another is the act of cowardliness, turning your back on the enemy and running away. A third dishonor could be considered knowingly poisoning your enemy without his knowledge, such as giving them blankets from small-pox patients, or giving strychnine as a laxative, by a doctor to his patient. That is the proper use of the mantra I mention.
Lubliner.
 

Piedone

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Joined
Oct 8, 2020
He could have admitted he had been wrong. He could have admitted that Winfield Scott and Lee's cousin, USN Captain and Admiral Lee had been right. He had the choice to make. Once the lines were established at Petersberg he could have opened correspondence with Grant to gain information about what was going to required in terms of surrender.
When General Lee saw the Confederate Congress, he could have refused to sacrifice anymore lives for a collection of fools.
But as far as I know he was decidedly not of the opinion that he had been wrong
- even less so after four years of a war where in his eyes
(I am just referring his interpretation of events and am not saying that his perspective was correct)
some boundaries of "honourable" warfare had been overstepped by some federal commanders.

If he acted - as you are proposing - he most probably would have felt like an impostor, liar and a traitor.

Considering his meticulous procedure of surrender at Appomattox I am pretty sure that notions of honour, expectations of his peer group and Southerners in general and consideration of the repercussions of every pace he did and every word he said
left only a very narrow corridor to act to him.

I am suggesting that Lee most probably knew extremely well how Southerners thought and felt -
and that he tried to seek a way which allowed them to get over the experience of defeat as fast as possible and to integrate themselves again as much as possible into the US again.

All that strange canonization of Lee in the South
and that deep need to find relief through a well told (if even irreal) story of the events
and that bitter feuds between former confederate commanders afterwards...

is in my eyes just proof how difficult all of that was.
 

jackt62

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Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
He could have admitted he had been wrong. He could have admitted that Winfield Scott and Lee's cousin, USN Captain and Admiral Lee had been right. He had the choice to make. Once the lines were established at Petersberg he could have opened correspondence with Grant to gain information about what was going to required in terms of surrender.
When General Lee saw the Confederate Congress, he could have refused to sacrifice anymore lives for a collection of fools.
All the more so because Lee knew the war was lost particularly after the armies settled into their respective lines around Petersburg. But Lee was not inclined to buck the political administration and Davis by advocating an end to hostilities. There was probably also a portion of Lee's mindset that could not allow him to declare defeat until being totally overwhelmed.
 

jackt62

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Location
New York City
Springing the trap at North Anna.
By that stage of the war, Lee was fighting from a mostly defensive posture. At North Anna, the ANV had entrenched itself in what might have been the most formidable position of the war, the so-called "inverted V." Due to that strong position, the various corps of the AotP were separated by the river; Lee's best hope would have been a probably forlorn hope by the AotP to assault that strong position. But Grant was too shrewd to fall for that type of attack, and he wisely withdrew the AotP from the North Anna by swinging away from the ANV.
 

yankeesfan65

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Joined
Feb 10, 2021
Of course alternate history is just opinion. That said, no I don't believe Lee could've altered the results of 1864. Grant didn't intend to hurl himself relentlessly against lee's entrenchments'. His intention was to get well past the wilderness/chancellorsville area and into more open country. Somehow Union calvary failed to alert Grant that Lee was so close. The cavalry also failed to screen Grants movement through the wilderness. Thus Lee was able to use the terrain to blunt Grants superior numbers. Lee then checked, but didn't defeat Grant at any point. Once Grant crossed the James, which Lee failed to prevent. Then it became a siege and was just merely a question of time.
 

Jim Heen

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Joined
Sep 10, 2021
Lee did as much as he could. He inflicted greater casualties on Grant in every battle of the Overland Campaign - and significantly more at Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, while only an untimely illness prevented Lee from springing the North Anna trap Grant briefly stepped into. Previous Union generals had retreated after similar battles. But Grant was made of sterner stuff. Grant also came within an ace of landing knockout blows on Lee several times (if Longstreet arrives 30 minutes later at the Wilderness, Lee is busted).

If you are looking to learn more about the Overland Campaign, Gordon Rhea wrote an excellent 5-volume study of this campaign covering everything from the Wilderness to Grant's crossing of the James River and the opening attacks at Petersburg. Alternatively, you could read just one or two of Rhea's books if interested in a specific battle(s) of the campaign.
 
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