Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter VIII: The Surrender: Fort Fisher captured and Lee made Commander-in-Chief

The Document

The year 1865 had now commenced. The strength of that thin gray line, drawn out to less than one thousand men to the mile, which had repulsed every attempt of the enemy to break through it, was daily becoming less. The capture of Fort Fisher, our last open port, January 15th, cut off all supplies and munitions from the outside world. Sherman had reached Savannah in December, from which point he was ready to unite with Grant at any time. From General Lee's letters, official and private, one gets a clear view of the desperateness of his position. He had been made commander-in-chief of all the military forces in the Confederate States on February 6th. In his order issued on accepting this command he says:

"...Deeply impressed with the difficulties and responsibilities of the position, and humbly invoking the guidance of Almighty God, I rely for success upon the courage and fortitude of the army, sustained by the patriotism and firmness of the people, confident that their united efforts under the blessing of Heaven will secure peace and independence...."

General Beauregard, who had so ably defended Petersburg when it was first attacked, and who had assisted so materially in its subsequent defense, had been sent to gather troops to try to check Sherman's advance through the Carolinas. But Beauregard's health was now very bad, and it was feared he would have to abandon the field. In a letter to the Secretary of War, dated February 21, 1865, my father says:

"...In the event of the necessity of abandoning our position on James River, I shall endeavour to unite the corps of the army about Burkeville [junction of Southside and Danville Railroad], so as to retain communication with the North and South as long as practicable, and also with the West, I should think Lynchburg, or some point west, the most advantageous place to which to remove stores from Richmond. This, however, is a most difficult point at this time to decide, and the place may have to be changed by circumstances. It was my intention in my former letter to apply for General Joseph E. Johnston, that I might assign him to duty, should circumstances permit. I have had no official report of the condition of General Beauregard's health. It is stated from many sources to be bad. If he should break down entirely, it might be fatal. In that event, I should have no one with whom to supply his place. I therefore respectfully request General Johnston may be ordered to report to me, and that I may be informed where he is."

In a letter to the Secretary of War, written the next day:

"...But you may expect Sheridan to move up the Valley, and Stoneman from Knoxville, as Sherman draws near Roanoke. What then will become of those sections of the country? I know of no other troops that could be given to Beauregard. Bragg will be forced back by Schofield, I fear, and, until I abandon James River, nothing can be sent from this army. Grant, I think, is now preparing to draw out by his left with the intent of enveloping me. He may wait till his other columns approach nearer, or he may be preparing to anticipate my withdrawal. I cannot tell yet.... Everything of value should be removed from Richmond. It is of the first importance to save all powder. The cavalry and artillery of the army are still scattered for want of provender, and our supply and ammunition trains, which out to be with the army in case of sudden movement, are absent collecting provisions and forage--some in western Virginia and some in North Carolina. You will see to what straits we are reduced; but I trust to work out."

On the same day, in a letter to my mother, he writes:

"...After sending my note this morning, I received from the express office a back of socks. You will have to send down your offerings as soon as you can, and bring your work to a close, for I think General Grant will move against us soon--within a week, if nothing prevents-- and no man can tell what may be the result; but trusting to a merciful God, who does not always give the battle to the strong, I pray we may not be overwhelmed. I shall, however, endeavour to do my duty and fight to the last. Should it be necessary to abandon our position to prevent being surrounded, what will you do? You must consider the question, and make up your mind. It is a fearful condition, and we must rely for guidance and protection upon a kind Providence...."

About this time, I saw my father for the last time until after the surrender. We had been ordered up to the army from our camp nearly forty miles away, reaching the vicinity of Petersburg the morning of the attack of General Gordon on Fort Stedman, on March 25th. My brother and I had ridden ahead of the division to report its presence, when we met the General riding Traveller, almost alone, back from that part of the lines opposite the fort. Since then I have often recalled the sadness of his face, its careworn expression. When he caught sight of his two sons, a bright smile at once lit up his countenance, and he showed very plainly his pleasure at seeing us. He thanked my brother for responding so promptly to his call upon him, and regretted that events had so shaped themselves that the division would not then be needed, as he had hoped it would be.

No good results followed Gordon's gallant attack. His supports did not come up a the proper time, and our losses were very heavy, mostly prisoners. Two days after this, Sheridan, with ten thousand mounted men, joined Grant, having marched from the Valley of Virginia via Staunton and Charlottesville. On the 28th, everything being ready, General Grant commenced to turn our right, and having more than three men to our one, he had no difficult task. On that very day my father wrote to my mother:

"...I have received your note with a bag of socks. I return the bag and receipt. The count is all right this time. I have put in the bag General Scott's autobiography, which I thought you might like to read. The General, of course, stands out prominently, and does not hide his light under a bushel, but he appears the bold, sagacious, truthful man that he is. I inclose a note from little Agnes. I shall be very glad to see her to-morrow, but cannot recommend pleasure trips now...."

Next: Battle of Five Forks

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee,, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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