Though evidence of the chain of custody of Lee's communications is lost to history, most of his communications with his government have been preserved, primarily in the Official Records of the Rebellion, Parts I, II & III of Volume 27 published in 1889. The manner in which the communications appear—spread out through all three volumes—is confusing to the student and mysterious.
Why, for example, do some of Lee's letters to President Davis appear in the Confederate Reports Part of the volume? The answer may be that these particular letters came into the possession of the Union Government as the result of Sherman's capture at Goldsboro, N.C., of Confederate Adjutant General Cooper's wagon train.
An examination of the documents reveals the fact that there was a practice followed by Lee's headquarters staff in creating and preserving the record of his communications.
During the Sharpsburg Campaign, and it appears the Gettysburg Campaign also, Lee would dictate his letters to President Davis and A.G. Cooper and others, to a member of his personal staff: sometimes the letter would be written down by A.L. Long, sometimes Walter Taylor, and sometimes Charles Marshall. The original letter would then be sent by courier to Richmond. Whether the courier delivered the letter directly to Davis, or delivered it to A.G. Cooper who delivered it to Davis the record is not clear.
It appears probable that after the original letter was written by the staff officer, its text would be copied either by him or by another officer into a bound letterbook which would be held by the staff as part of Lee's headquarters records. At the same time this process occurred, the letter, whether the original or the copied version, would again be copied; this time by a member of the Confederate Adjutant General's staff who was assigned to Lee's headquarters for the purpose of making sure a record of all communications (and orders) was made, and this record would be eventually delivered to the A.G.'s office in Richmond and this latter record became the contents of Cooper's wagon train Sherman captured at Goldsboro.
As a consequence of this record-keeping practice, there should be in existence somewhere, if not destroyed or lost through the passage of time, several copies of an original communication as set forth below:
1. The original letters Lee sent to Davis should be part of Davis's personal records, maintained by his private secretary, Burton Harrison. All that we know of the these records, is that some of them, apparently including letters Davis received from Lee, were put inside a trunk which Davis carried with him when he fled Richmond in April 1865. The trunk was left in Georgia when he was captured by Union forces and its contents—some of them at least—surfaced in the early 20th Century and have found their way mysteriously into certain depositories, primarily, thanks to Bernard Baurch, the Virginia State Library.
2. The record copies, most of which are found within bound letterbooks, should be part of the A.G.'s records.
3. The record copies maintained by Lee's headquarters staff also are found in letterbooks, but their chain of custody is mysterious and it appears that Charles Marshall, and perhaps Walter Taylor, may have made additional copies of letters they wrote out at Lee's dictation and carried these copies away with them at the war's end.
An example of the letterbook format
Because the existing record of Lee's communications is not complete and because the three separate means of preserving them do not track each other precisely in terms of periods of time, gaps exist in which it appears communications are missing, and it is possible that some of the existing communications may have been created long after the date they were allegedly written.
Most startling is the fact that almost none of President Davis's letters, written in reply to General Lee's, can be found in any depository. Indeed, those few that do exist, exist because they were seized by Union forces from Confederate couriers. This is most strange, because Davis's letters should have been in Burton Harrison's trunk, yet it appears the only letters found in it were letters Lee wrote to Davis.
The student cannot rely on the standard publications to include all letters between Lee and Davis that are in existence. For example, several letters were intentionally left out of the 1962 Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, edited by the Virginia State Library archivist, Louis Manarin. Why this is so, one can only speculate. Set forth below is one such letter, a copy of which can be found in a letterbook held by the National Archives, covering the period of the Sharpsburg Campaign.
One explanation for why this letter was left out of The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee is its subject matter which undermines the historians' traditional story of Lee's situation in entering Maryland. The letter reads:
"Mr. President—I find that the discipline of the army [which for several reasons was bad when I assumed command] has not been improved by the forced marches and hard service it has lately undergone. I need not say to you that the material of which it is composed is the best in the world, and if properly disciplined and instructed, would be able successfully to resist any force that could be brought against it. Nothing can surpass the gallantry and intelligence of the main body, but there are individuals who from their backwardness in duty, tardiness of movement and neglect of orders, do it no credit. These, if possible, should be removed from its rolls, if they cannot be improved by correctness.
. . . One of the greatest evils from which many minor ones proceed, is the habit of straggling from the ranks. . . . It has become a habit difficult to correct. With some, the sick and feeble, it results from necessity, but with the greater number from design. These latter do not wish to be with their regiments, nor to share in their hardships and glories. They are the cowards of the army, desert their comrades in times of danger, and fill the houses of the charitable on the march.
I know of no better way of correcting this great evil [than by prompt military trial and execution]. . . "
Whether this letter is written in the hand of one of Lee's staff officers vs. one of A.G. Cooper's, tells you whether the letterbook was part of Lee's records or part of Cooper's.
Distinguish also between letterbook and orderbook, which is a separate confusing problem.
Series 1, Vol. 27, Parts I, II & III-Reports & Correspondence
Mr. President: I commenced to draw the army from the vicinity of Fredericksburg on Wednesday morning, June 3. . . I have with me two divisions of Longstreet's corps and the three divisions of Ewell's. I desire to bring up the remaining division of Longstreet's and sent you a dispatch this morning, requesting that Cooke should be advanced to [Pickett's] place, and that Jenkins should be brought from the Blackwater to replace Cooke. If it is true that only 1,500 of the enemy remain in Suffolk, Ransom's brigade will be more than sufficient for that line. West Point being evacuated, and the force at Yorktown reduced, there is nothing to be apprehended from that quarter, and Cooke and Jenkins should be directed to follow me. . .
I think if I can create an apprehension for the safety of their right flank and the Potomac, more troops will be brought from their lines of operations in the south, but to gain any material advantage, I should, if possible, have a large force, as their army is represented as very large.
If it is true. . . that Hunter's forces should be reduced by reinforcements sent to the Gulf, it would be well for Beauregard, with the force made available by this withdrawal, to be sent to reinforce Johnson in the west, or be ordered to reinforce this army. If these troops remain where they are, their services will be lost to the country."
Note: Here you see the horrible truth, certainly obvious to Lee, if not Davis, that the Confederacy is doomed to defeat. At this time Grant is across the Mississippi, moving to cut Vicksburg's communications with the east; Rosecrans is facing Bragg in Southern Tennessee, and Union forces control the eastern and gulf sea boards. The manpower of the Confederacy is like water in a balloon: squeeze it to bulge in one direction and it necessarily shrinks in another direction. Everything now depends upon President Davis being able, to not only reinforce Lee's army, so that it can take the offensive against the Union army in its front, but also to organize a cooperating army to operate with Lee's against Washington—if there is to be any chance of gaining British recognition, which is the only possible way the Confederacy can survive in the long run.
But, as we will see, this is impossible for President Davis to accomplish, simply because he does not have the manpower to hold back Union pressure at the essential points: the Charleston-Savannah corridor; Chattanooga; Vicksburg; and Richmond.
June 9, 1863
Mr. President: . . . The plan of the enemy to destroy this army does not appear to me to be in process of immediate execution, inasmuch as it is certain that the enemy has abandoned West Point, and diminished his force at Yorktown, Gloucester and Suffolk."
Note: Lee is pushing the idea that with the enemy threat against Richmond diminishing, troops can be released to increase his strength. And, of course, Lincoln is calling these troops to where, to Washington?
June 10, 1863 (found in Part II at p. 880)
Mr. President: "I refer to the manner in which the demonstration of a desire for peace at the North has been received in our country. . . . Recent political movements (the copperheads) in the United States and the comments of [Democratic] newspapers upon them, have attracted my attention (he reads the papers). . . Conceding to our enemies the superiority claimed by them in numbers, resources, and all the means and appliances for carrying on the war, we have no right to look for exemptions from the military consequences of a vigorous use of these advantages. . .
While making the most we can of the means of resistance we possess. . . it is nevertheless the part of wisdom to carefully measure and husband our strength, and not to expect for it more than in the ordinary course of affairs it is capable of accomplishing. (And he says that thinking already about Gettysburg) We should not therefore conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect is constantly increasing between us and the enemy. The ranks of our army are growing weaker.
Under these circumstances we should neglect no honorable means of dividing and weakening our enemies (He is using the idea of "peace talks" as a device to buy time.). It seems to me that the most effective way of doing this is to give all the encouragement we can to the peace party of the north. . . Should the belief that peace would bring back the Union (with or without slavery) become general, the war would no longer be supported and that is what, after all, we are interested to bring about (Exactly correct!).
When peace is proposed to us it will be time enough to talk about terms. . . . We entertain no apprehension [about going back into the Union]; nor doubt that the desire of our people for a distinct and independent national existence will prove steadfast. . . [thus] we should abstain from any expressions that tend to discourage any party whose purpose is peace."
Note: Such a sad letter this is. The historians foolish crow about the idea that the Confederacy had real chances to win its independence, that Lee, in moving into Pennsylvania, had real chances to "crush" the Union army in his front and, as Professor McPherson constantly crows "conquer the peace." Pure silliness as this pathetic letter of Lee's, at the verge of the Gettysburg Campaign, shows.
General Lee admits the dismal truth: The Union has the Confederacy outmanned, outgunned, and outsupplied; it is just a matter of time before the growing strength of the Union overwhelms the growing weakness of the Confederacy. And he makes the pathetic prayer that somehow, in the course of this military process, the Union will propose peace to the Confederacy and be receptive to the giving up the political goal it is winning hands down on the battlefield.
June 10, 1863: Secretary of War Seddon to General Lee
"General: I concur entirely in your views of the importance of aggressive movements by your army. . . At the same time, I press upon you some of the dangers. . . [it] may expose us. I have not hesitated, in cooperating with your plans, to leave this city almost defenseless, and [now] learning that you had ordered away the small brigade left by Pickett at Hanover, I have readily concurred in sending Cooke's brigade to the junction. . . . I have some apprehension. . . that the enemy is concentrating at Yorktown. . . but we must incur the hazard. The President has not been willing to order Jenkins from North Carolina, . . . "
Note: In this context, imagine if General Lee had already broached the subject of President Davis ordering the governors of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, to let Beauregard and most of the troops in their states to move by rail to Culpeper, to support the operations of General Lee's army?
June 13, 1863, General Lee to Seddon:
"You can realize the difficulty of operating in any offensive movement with this army if it has to be divided to cover Richmond. It seems to me useless to attempt it with the force against it. . . . I grieve over the [ravages] of the country. . . It can only be prevented by local organizations. I have not half as much cavalry as I require to keep back the enemy's mounted force in my front. If I weaken it, I fear a heavier calamity may befall us. . . All accounts agree the enemy forces at Yorktown and Suffolk have been diminished. . . "
Note: You can see here the great difference between Lincoln's situation and Davis's. Lincoln is strong enough to have an army facing Lee in the field that is stronger than his, and at the same time keep a huge force in the forts at Washington.
Put yourself in Lee's shoes and think through what possibly you can expect reasonably to achieve in taking the initiative in this military situation. "Conquer a peace," as Professor McPherson says? Just ridiculous. Wreck the organization of the enemy army to the point it will not be in condition to move on the offensive against Richmond for some time to come? Now that is within the realm of reasonable probability—given a little luck.
June 15, 1863
Mr. President: On the 10th, I put Ewell's corps in motion for the valley. On the 13th he drove the enemy out of Berryville. . . I presume he has advanced toward the Potomac
. . . Our scouts report the enemy is moving north up the Rappahannock.
The uncertainty of the reports as to threatened expeditions of the enemy along the coast of North Carolina and between the Rappahannock and James River, has caused delay in the movements of this army, and it may now be too late to accomplish all that was desired. I am still ignorant as to the extent of the expedition said to be moving up the Peninsula, and hesitate to draw the whole of A.P. Hill's corps to me. Two of Pickett's brigades are at Hanover Junction and Richmond, so that I am quite weak."
Note: Amazing. Yet Lee has Ewell now all the way to Winchester, moving to the Potomac.
June 16, 1863 (found in Part III at p. 896)
Mr. President: I send you a letter from Mr. O'Sullivan which refers to the irritation produced among the Democratic Party in the North by the language of some of our southern papers."
June 18, 1863
Mr. President: The enemy has been thrown back from the line of the Rappahannock, and is concentrating in the vicinity of Centreville. The last reports from the scouts indicate that he is moving over toward the upper Potomac. . . Longstreet's corps has moved east of the Blue Ridge, . . . while Ewell. . . has seized upon the Potomac, so as to enable Hill's corps to move up from Fredericksburg. Stuart has held with his cavalry the approaches to the Blue Ridge. . .
Note: Here, General Lee is telling Davis that the effect of his operations has induced Hooker to bring his corps tightly together, in front of Washington facing west at Bull Run.
June 19, 1863, near Millwood
Mr. President: Ewell has advanced from the Potomac toward Pennsylvania. One division is at Shepherdstown to guard his right flank and rear. Longstreet's corps on the Ashby's and Snicker's Gaps roads threaten the enemy, who is massed between him and Washington. Stuart is operating in his front. I hope the first division of Hill's corps will reach here today, so that Early may be relieved and follow Ewell. Indications are that the enemy's main body is proceeding toward the Potomac, whether upon Harper's Ferry or to cross the river east of it, is not yet known. The difficulty of procuring supplies retards and renders more uncertain our future movements."
Note: See how tenuous this all is: Lee has to feed his army, and he does not know yet whether Hooker intends to try and cut his advance off from crossing the Potomac, by moving west to Harper's Ferry.
June 19, 1863, Davis to Lee (Part III at p. 904)
General Lee: We have been endeavoring here to organize a defense force. . . You will know better than we can here whether any attempt will be made to pass your rear. . . I rejoice in the success which has attended your advance into the valley of Virginia."
Note: This is one of the very few letters the record shows Davis sent to Lee that has surfaced. Where it came from I do not know. Davis is acknowledging that Lee's rear is on its own.
June 19, 1863, Lee to Ewell
General Ewell: . . . Anderson's division ought to be within reach today and I will move him to Berryville. . . the movements of Hooker's army has not yet been ascertained. You must, therefore, be guided in your movements by controlling circumstances around you
. . . and carry out the plan you proposed, so far as your judgment may seem fit. If your advance causes Hooker to cross the Potomac. . . Longstreet can follow you. The last of Hill's corps has advanced this side of Culpeper.
Note: Given the syntax, it appears that on the 19th Lee was not at Berryville.
June 20, 1863, Lee to Imboden
You can advance north of the Potomac and keep on the left of this army in its advance into Pennsylvania. . . I desire you to destroy all my letters to you after perusal (to avoid their capture).
June 20, 1863, from Berryville
Mr. President: Imboden has destroyed the bridges of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad [at different points from Cumberland to Paw Paw]. Lt. Col. White of the cavalry has also cut the railroad east of Point of Rocks.
Ewell's corps is north of the Potomac. . . The first division of Hill's corps will reach this vicinity today; the rest follow. Longstreet's corps, with Stuart's cavalry, still occupy the Blue Ridge, between the roads leading to Ashby's and Snicker's gaps. The movement of the main body of the enemy is still toward the Potomac, but its real destination is not yet discovered.
If any of the brigades left behind for the protection of Richmond can be sent to me, I should like them sent to me.
Note: The date of this letter is subject to ambiguity. The original of it appears to be in the possession of the Virginia State Library and the library's accession record identifies it with the date of June 24, not June 20 though it is printed in the OR as June 20. According to the Library's archivist, "Because of the handwriting of other letters in the collection, the processing archivist (this happened in 1946) interpreted the number as 4 rather than 0."Looking at the date as written, it could be a 4 just as easily as a 0. Which it is depends on proof of where General Lee was located on both these dates. We know he reached the right bank of the Potomac on June 25. The difference is important as it places White at Point of Rocks, putting him in perfect position to watch the enemy cross the Potomac at Edwards Ferry on June 26.
Lt. Col. Fremantle, of the Cold Stream Guards, in his book Three Months in the Southern States published in 1864, states that he reached Lee's headquarters at Berryville on June 22, 1863.
So far, what do we know of General Lee's plans? We know clearly that he means by his movements to induce the enemy's army to cross the Potomac into Maryland, thereby increasing the distance it must travel to get to Richmond. But is the battle of Gettysburg now in his mind? Is he aiming for that point, with the plan of maneuvering in such manner as to induce the enemy to advance piecemeal to meet him? Clearly, he must now, if he is a reasonable general, have in mind a point he means to reach, to concentrate and bring on a battle; the only thing in doubt is what scale the battle will be. Will it be only a preliminary battle, sufficient to allow him to maneuver the enemy army into the forts of Washington, allowing him to take position at Frederick and wait on the defensive? Or does he mean to concentrate his army fully in front of Gettysburg and wait for the enemy's main body to engage him there? But, in this latter scenario, why should the enemy's main body advance—the advance necessarily occurring by the march of columns on roads—when it can itself fully concentrate at a distant point and wait for Lee to move to meet it?
June 22, 1863, Lee to Stuart
I have received your note of 7:45 a.m. this morning to Longstreet. . . . If you find that the enemy is moving northward, and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into Maryland, and take position on Ewell's right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of the enemy's movements, and collect all the supplies you can for this army. One column of Ewell's corps will probably move toward the Susquehanna by the Emmittsburg route, the other by Chambersburg. Take charge of A.G. Jenkin's cavalry and give him instructions.
Note: The language Lee used here belies the historians' traditional story about Lee's "eyes" going astray. Stuart is expected to "take position on Ewell's right (i.e., Early's division at York)." How to "take position" was left to Stuart's choice and he chose to take position so that he could attack Kilpatrick's rear instead of taking position between Kilpatrick and Early, to attack his front.
Stuart was expected to keep Ewell (through Early) "informed of the enemy's movements," not keep Lee informed.
June 22, 1863, Lee to Ewell
I think your best course will be toward the Susquehanna, taking the routes by Emmittsburg, Chambersburg and McConnellsburg. . . .Your progress and direction will, of course, depend upon the development of circumstances. If Harrisburg comes within your means, capture it. . . .
Note: This is the first mention of "Harrisburg" in Lee's plans. Given the objective military reality that Harrisburg was not a reasonable objective of the campaign, it is probable that Lee allowed this reference to remain in the letter as a subterfuge in the very real event the courier bearing the letter to Ewell was intercepted by enemy forces.
June 22, 1863, Longstreet to Stuart
General Lee has enclosed to me this letter to you (the above letter from Lee to Stuart), to be forwarded to you. . . provided that I think you can move across the Potomac without disclosing our plans. He speaks of your. . . passing by the rear of the enemy. If you can get through by that route, I think you will be less likely to indicate what our plans are than if you cross by passing to our rear. . . ."
Note: It is certainly unintelligible what Longstreet is talking about here. The enemy by now certainly knows that Ewell's corps is already at the Potomac and crossing and is beginning to move northward to get in front of Washington. From the Union perspective, the enemy is about to invade the North and the enemy's movements will probably be to turn east after crossing and pass through the South Mountain gaps and move toward Frederick. Whichever way Stuart crosses the Potomac, if he does so immediately, will indicate the objective of Lee's plans. This explains why Stuart delayed crossing until the last Union corps—the Sixth Corps—was moving toward the pontoon bridges north of his position at Darnesville and Seneca Ford.
June 22, 1863, Longstreet to Lee
I have forwarded your letter to Stuart with the suggestion that he pass by the enemy's rear if he thinks that he may get through."
June 23, 1863, 5:00 p.m., Lee to Stuart
Your notes of 9 and 10:30 a.m. today have just been received. If Hooker's army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades (Robertson and Jones) to watch him, and withdraw with the three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw to this side of the [Blue Ridge] tomorrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Frederick.
You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell's troops (i.e., Early), collecting information, provisions etc.
Give instructions to the commander of the brigades left behind, to watch the flank and rear of the army and in the event of the enemy leaving their front, retire from the [Blue Ridge] west of the Shenandoah, . . . closing upon the rear of the army.
Note: The clear meaning of this message is that, if Stuart decides to pass east around the rear of the Union army as it moves toward the Potomac, the brigades of Robertson and Jones are expected to watch the movement of Hooker's army by keeping on the flank and rear of Lee's army and eventually close upon the rear of the army.
It was General Lee's clear choice: He could have ordered Stuart to take all five brigades and move to the valley and then cross the Potomac at Shepherdstown and then move to Frederick, thus placing himself squarely in the path of the oncoming Union army. Had he ordered Stuart to do this, then obviously there would have been no Harrison entering the historians' traditional story. But he did not order Stuart to do this, did he? Therefore, we must assume (Lee not being stupid) that Lee would need some other scout than Stuart to provide him with notice when the advance of the Union army had reached Frederick; because Lee planned on positioning his divisions in a way that would induce the enemy to advance toward the mouth of the Cashtown Gap and he needed two days notice of that advance from Frederick.
Had Stuart positioned his five brigades at Frederick, Hooker must then have realized that Lee's main body was behind Stuart and Hooker would not have perceived a threat materializing against Washington, from the direction of York; and thus would not have ordered (as Meade did) his army to disperse along the Pipe Creek line in anticipation that Lee would be coming south toward Washington from York instead of coming south, if not directly east from South Mountain, to Frederick
FromLee's point of view, given his dispositions, it was much better to have Stuart cutting between Hooker and Washington than having Stuart standing in front of Hooker's on-coming army. Hooker would naturally assume that Stuart was moving toward York in order to place himself in front of Lee's advance from that place toward Washington. (The fact that Robertson appears to have ignored his orders is irrelevant to the issue of who did Lee expect to bring him notice of Hooker's arrival at Frederick, bringing Hooker within two days march of the Cashtown Gap.)
Stuart did sent Robertson instructions and they clearly directed Robertson to "cross the Potomac and follow the army, keeping on its right and rear." Robertson could have crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown, passed through Sharpsburg and ridden to the top of South Mountain and watched for the appearance of Hooker's lead corps to enter the Middletown Valley, and thus be the "scout" who brought Lee the word the night of June 28 that "Hooker was advancing."Instead, Robertson took position at Martinsburg and stayed there until a courier came from Lee on July 2 and ordered him to get himself immediately to Cashtown.
June 23, 1863, Lee to Davis
Mr. President: Reports of movements of the enemy (i.e., the two notes from Stuart) east of the Blue Ridge cause me to believe that he is preparing to cross the Potomac. A pontoon bridge is said to be laid at Edward's Ferry, and his army corps that he has advanced to Leesburg. . . appear to be withdrawing. Stuart last night was within a few miles of Aldie, to which point the enemy had retired.
General Ewell's corps is in motion toward the Susquehanna. Hill's corps is moving toward the Potomac; his leading division will reach Shepherdstown today. I have withdrawn Longstreet west of the Shenandoah, and if nothing prevents, he will follow (Hill) tomorrow.
Note: Given the distance of Aldie from the Potomac, it is clear that someone other than Stuart's cavalry saw that Hooker's corps were "preparing to cross the Potomac" at Edwards Ferry via the Pontoon bridges. That person most probably was E.V. White or a trooper under his command. The information then was transmitted by a courier who had to ride south between the Blue Ridge and the Bull Run Mountains and bring Stuart the word at Aldie who then sent "notes" to Lee who then was at Berryville.
Lee's continued reference, in his letters to Davis, of Ewell's movement being "toward the Susquehanna" means clearly that the plan of spreading Ewell's forces was designed, in conjunction with Stuart's movement in his rear, to induce Hooker to think first of the necessity of getting between Washington and York, instead of moving directly north with his main body toward the Cashtown Gap.
General Lee was not interested in forcing Hooker into a general battle at Gettysburg, a battle he must of known it would be very doubtful he could win. Far better to demolish Hooker's fragmented advance and then use the confusion to turn Hooker's left flank at Emmittsburg and get to Frederick, forcing Hooker to fall back and regroup closer to Washington and then, in time, come out again to meet him. The process might take all summer and secure the safety of Richmond.
Now Comes The Kicker
June 23, 1863, from Lee to A.G. Cooper
General Cooper: . . I wish Corse's brigade to rejoin Pickett's' division as soon as possible.
. . . I wish to have every man that can be spared and desire that Cooke's brigade may be sent forward. . . I think there will be no necessity for keeping a large number of troops at [Richmond], especially if the plan of assembling an army at Culpeper Courthouse under Beauregard be adopted.
Note: Huh? Where did this idea come from? Out of the blue? What is Lee thinking? He is dreaming that indeed his strategic operations, intended to maneuver Hooker into the forts at Washington and then take position at Frederick and wait there for Hooker to come out, will in fact work! And if they do, then absolutely this is the critical moment to have Beauregard in command of a secondary army at Culpeper, to operate against Hooker as he comes out.
But it is a pipe dream and Lee certainly must have known it. Still, who knows what might have happened, and if by some miracle Lee had made it to Frederick with Hooker backed up in the forts this would be the last chance for the Confederacy to gain British recognition, by gaining possession of Washington through the destruction of Hooker's army. Everything else going on—Grant about to capture Vicksburg, Rosecrans about to capture Chattanooga, would pale in comparison and give Palmerston the legitimate excuse he was waiting for.
June 23, 1863 Lee makes his pitch!
The season is now so far advanced as to render it improbable that the enemy will undertake active operations on the Carolina and Georgia coast. . . This impression is confirmed by statements in the northern press. . .
At this distance I can see no benefit to be derived from maintaining a large force on the southern coast. . . , and I think that a part of the troops in North Carolina and of those under Beauregard (at Charleston) can be employed at this time to great advantage in Virginia.
If an army could be organized under the command of Beauregard and pushed forward to Culpeper, threatening Washington from that direction, it would not only effect a diversion most favorable to this army, but would, I think, relieve us of any apprehension of an attack upon Richmond during our absence.
If success should attend the operations of this army, and what I now suggest would greatly increase the probability of that result, we might hope to compel the recall of some of the enemy's troops in the west.
The good effects of beginning to assemble an army at Culpeper would, I think, soon become apparent and the movement might be increased in importance as the result might appear to justify. . . .
Note: How great a general was this man! He is anticipating success in his operations which will bring him to Frederick where he can sit behind the Monacacy and wait for Hooker to come to him, and with Lincoln realizing Hooker must now face two armies, both menacing Washington, Lincoln might well bring troops from Grant's theater to the east. Who knows what might happen! But at the bottom of his heart Lee must have known Confederate politics would prevent President Davis from forcing the governors of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia to go along with stripping their states of troops to support Lee's operations.
According to James Longstreet, writing in 1896, "[Lee's] early experience with the Richmond authorities taught him to deal cautiously with them in disclosing his views, and to leave for them the privilege and credit of approving, step by step, his apparently hesitant policy, so that his plans were disclosed little at a time; and finding them slow in approving them, still slower in advancing the brigades of Pickett's division, and utterly oblivious of the effect of the grand swing north on our interior lines, he did not mention the part left open for Beauregard until he had their approval of the march of the part of his command in his hand."
June 25, 1863, Opposite Williamsport
You will see that apprehension for the safety of Washington. . . has aroused the Federal Government and people to great exertions, and it is incumbent upon us to call forth all our energies. In addition to the 100,000 troops called for by President Lincoln to defend the frontier of Pennsylvania, you will see that he is concentrating other organized forces in Maryland.
I think this should liberate the troops in the Carolinas. . . If the plan I suggested the other day (how casually he says it), of organizing an army, even in effigy, under Beauregard at Culpeper, can be carried into effect, much relief will be afforded. If even the brigades. . . in North Carolina and Virginia were ordered there at once, and Beauregard sent there, it would do more to protect those states. . . than anything else.
I have not sufficient troops to maintain my communications, and, therefore, have to abandon them. I think I can throw Hooker's army across the Potomac. . . embarrassing their plan of campaign in a measure, if I can do nothing else.
Note: There is no way General Lee could have raised the subject of this, at the same time he was struggling with the politicians, just to get the army he had together. And now, he is telling his president, he is letting his communications with Virginia, go.
June 25, 1863, Williamsport
So strong is my conviction of the necessity of activity on our part in military affairs, that you will excuse my adverting to the subject again. . . It seems to me that we cannot afford to keep our troops awaiting possible movements of the enemy, but that our true policy is, as far as we can, so to employ our own forces as to give occupation to his at points of our selection.
. . . I feel sure, therefore, that the best use that can be made of the troops in Carolina, and those in Virginia now guarding Richmond, would be the prompt assembling of the main body of them. . . at Culpeper, under the command of [Beauregard]. . . .[even Buckner and Jones] might be sent with benefit. . . to constitute part of the proposed army of Beauregard at Culpeper. . . It should never be forgotten that our concentration at any point compels that of the enemy. . .
Note: He is now telling his president that the battle of Gettysburg will happen.
President Davis's answer to this was intercepted by Union cavalry on July 2, 1863
June 28, 1863
Yours of June 23 received this evening, and hasten to reply to the point presented in relation to [the Carolina forces]. The hopes indulged as to our operations. . . have been disappointed. . .
Grant reached the river, got reinforcements, made entrenchments, and General Johnston continues to call for reinforcements, though his first requisition was more than filled by withdrawing troops from Beauregard and Bragg. Bragg is threatened with attack, has fallen back to Tullahoma and called on Buckner for aid. Beauregard says that no troops have been withdrawn by the enemy from his [front].
We are organizing companies for home defense. The enemy have been reported in large force at White House, with indications of an advance on Richmond. Corse's brigade, in accordance with your orders, left Hanover Junction. [Enemy cavalry raided the place soon after].
It has been an effort with me to answer the clamor to have troops stopped or recalled, to protect the city and the railroads.
Do not understand me as balancing accounts in the matter of brigades. I only repeat that I have not many to send you, and not enough to form an army to threaten, if not capture, Washington as soon as it is uncovered by Hooker's army.
Note: Here is the reality. The Confederacy is being overwhelmed and the one chance to prevent it Lee is trying to make possible, if he succeeds in the first phase, and there is nothing President Davis can do about it. Had he tried, the outcome of Gettysburg rendered the thin opportunity moot.
June 29, 1863, A.G. Cooper to General Lee
While with the President last night, I received your letter of the 23rd instant. After reading it, the President [could not] understand that part of it which refers to the plan of assembling an army at Culpeper under Beauregard. This is the first intimation that he has had that such a plan was ever in contemplation, and, taking all things into consideration, he cannot see how it can by any possibility be carried into effect.
Note: The Union can count itself lucky that Stonewall Jackson was killed at Chancellorsville; for had Lee's plan for Gettysburg worked, the Confederate army would have soon been at Frederick and the Union army at the forts of Washington. And if Davis had closed his mind to the cries of Johnston and Bragg and the governors and got Beauregard to Culpeper with as many of the troops he could force there, who knows what would have happened.
July 4, 1863, General Lee to President Davis
After the rear of the army had crossed the Potomac, the leading corps under Ewell pushed on to Carlisle and York, passing through Chambersburg. The other corps closed up at the latter place, and soon afterward intelligence was received that the army of Hooker was advancing. Our whole force was directed to concentrate at Gettysburg, and the corps of Ewell and Hill reached that place on July 1. The two leading divisions of these corps, upon reaching the vicinity of Gettysburg, found the enemy and attacked him, driving him from the town, which was occupied by our troops. He took up a strong position in rear of the town which he immediately began to fortify, and where his reinforcements joined him.
. . . The works on the enemy's extreme right and left were taken, but his numbers were so great and his position so commanding, that our troops were compelled to relinquish their advantage and retire.
Very Respectfully, your obedient servant,
R.E. Lee, General.