The Army of Northern Virginia in 1864

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This was a presentation by Ranger John Heiser as part of the Gettysburg National Military Park’s 2014 Winter Lecture Series.  Like all the rangers here, John does an outstanding job.  We are really fortunate to have a dedicated group of men and women who have a passion for both history and for helping the general public understand our great nation’s history.


At first the Army of Northern Virginia was really a scratch army put together with minimal means in 1861.  By 1862 they are fighting pitched battles with a Union army that was larger and had better logistics, and they were winning those battles.  The army in 1862 was different from what it would be in 1864.  It started out as a real jumble, a mishmash of command.  A lot of it has to do with dates of appointment of commanders and the dates the units/regiments came into the army.  Lee reorganized the army after Antietam and again after Chancellorsville.  He streamlined it into three corps, under Longstreet, Ewell, and Hill, as well as a cavalry division under Stuart and his artillery reserve, as well as a logistical supply chain, signal corps, and other things required to operate the army.


By 1864 the army hasn’t changed much, but each corps now has a sharpshooter battalion, which was a direct response to their experience against Union sharpshooters, specifically Berdan’s Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac.  These battalions consisted of ten to eighteen men at most.  Their specific job was to take on Union sharpshooters.


The majority of the units and men in the Army of Northern Virginia were from the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The second most were from the state of North Carolina, which provides almost 40-48 thousand officers and men to the Army of Northern Virginia.  Most of them remained as lieutenant colonels, colonels, and brigadier generals until the Virginians were killed off, and then slow promotions came along.  Behind them were Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.


They all seemed to call each other boys, but we now know through research they weren’t really kids.  Many of them were 18, 19, and 20  years old, but the majority were in their middle twenties, and some in their thirties.  There is also a large element in their forties and fifties, with some in their sixties.  The majority of them were born in the south.  There were also those who were foreign-born who had moved to the south as well as some who were northern-born who had moved to the south.


A large majority were farmers.  There is also a large element of unskilled laborers.  Next behind that are the skilled, professional and white-collar.  The majority in the infantry are farmers or unskilled laborers.


37.2% of the men in the army owned slaves.  62.8% lived in a household where someone else owned slaves or they had slaves living in that household.  Two of every four slave owners brought a body servant with them into the army, and by 1864 more and more slaves are being leased to the army to release men to the front line combat regiments.  The wagon trains, the supply trains, the hospital trains, and the body servants were African-American slaves.  Front-line troops were all white.


Of the soldiers from the economic upper class of society, 90.5% are slave owners or they live in households of people who own slaves.  The poor farmer is the one who is bearing the burden, though.  This is more reflective of the infantry rather than the artillery or the cavalry.  In the infantry, 19 of every 20 men were from the lower economic class.  Of those remaining, the top percent, 8 of 9 were from rich families, which meant their family income was between $3,000 to $5,000 and up.  The higher percentage of the middle class don’t receive officers’ commissions.  They start out as privates, sergeants, and by 1864 many of them are lieutenants, captains, majors, even as high as colonels.  In the cavalry, the lower economic class is a minority, only 3 in every 20.  Five in every ten in the artillery is in the lower economic class.


Replacing manpower in the army is always going to be an issue for Robert E. Lee.  By 1862 and 63, conscription is the primary source of putting manpower into the army.  There was a substitute system, but it didn’t work very well.  They didn’t last long.  They deserted after a couple of weeks.  Most of the conscripts became very good, solid soldiers.  As conscription goes, the number of men who can get into the army is very low by 1864.  Private Charles West of the 27th South Carolina Infantry is the only slave-owning conscript in 1864.


The average soldier would be hard to pin down.  Early in the war he was a young man between 21 and 34.  Now, by 1864, that dynamic has changed quite a bit due to disease, attrition, and combat.  The majority of the men are between the ages of 17 and 44.  The average age is probably closer to about 24 or 25.  Over a third are married.  44% come from slaveholding families.  The middle class are some of the most solid officers and leaders Lee has in his command.  Their army service and experience makes them leaders.  New men do not hold the same value to the veterans as a veteran does.  Of those who deserted in 1864, the majority are married with children.


Robert E. Lee is the glue that holds the army together.  He’s the one who has led it through two years of constant combat and campaigns, and held it together when it should have come apart.  The morale is high because the men have faith that Lee will make the right choice.


Lee has a number of issues with his army.  1863 devastated the upper command of his army.  He lost so many generals, colonels, and lieutenant colonels and majors in the Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and the Mine Run Campaign that he now has a leadership gap.  He still has his corps commanders, but some of the division commanders who were really dynamic leaders such as John Bell Hood and William Dorsey Pender are gone.

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The people who will step up to fill these voids include John B. Gordon and Cadmus Wilcox.  Wilcox begins the Wilderness Campaign as a division commander under A. P. Hill.  Lee had a lot of sympathy for Wilcox because he is a good, solid leader.  He was always at the front with his men.  He never let his men want for anything, and he shared the same hardships they did.  Gordon is much the same.  There is something about Gordon that made men feel confident with him.

Some others like that include Maj. Gen. Bryan Grimes.  He begins the Wilderness Campaign as a colonel of the 4th North Carolina.  He’ll wind up commanding a brigade, and by the end of 1864 he commands a division.   In 1865 he’ll command part of a corps temporarily during the Appomattox Campaign.  Grimes is a strong officer, as is Major General Charles W. Field.  Field takes over command of Lafayette McLaws’ division of Longstreet’s corps in 1864 and will command it very well into 1865.  Field had a lot of experience as a brigade commander and a colonel.


By 1864 it is a whole new army organization.  Grant will send the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River after Lee.  The Army of Northern Virginia spent the winter of 1863 gathered around Orange Courthouse, which is about 35 miles west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, just below Culpepper.  Grant wants to cross the river, move as fast as possible, draw Lee into the open, and beat him.  It doesn’t work that well.


The opening engagement was on May 5 in the Battle of the Wilderness.  The Wilderness is a thick, tangled growth of small trees, shrubs, and oaks, and was a tangled mess with only a few open fields where the two armies could actually fight, mostly along the two pikes.  What Lee wanted to do was tangle up Grant’s army in the Wilderness.  He was very successful in doing that, but the advantages he had also negatively affected his own troops and the effectiveness of their movement.

When the campaign began, Lee was understrength.  He had barely half the amount of men the Army of the Potomac had.  The AotP had almost 110,000 officers and men.  Lee had approximately 56,000, with only 52,000 in the field.  Longstreet’s corps was only composed of two divisions at this time.  Pickett’s division was down around the Norfolk/Suffolk area on detached duty.  Lee is already at a disadvantage.  The closest troops he has are Hill’s Corps and Ewell’s Corps.  He sends them against Meade and the Army of the Potomac right away.  They get tangled in the Wilderness when the fighting breaks out there.

The problem with the Army of the Potomac’s movements is bad leadership.  Things become confused in the worst way, which plays into the confederates’ hands because they’re understrength.  On the other hand, confederate attacks become just as confused and just as mismanaged as the Union attacks.  Things start to break down and fall apart.


The horrors of the Wilderness Battlefield will play in the minds of these men for years afterwards because of a new element–not just earthworks but the fires that ranged through that dry underbrush roasting the dead and wounded alike.  Many believed the result of the two days’ fighting in the Wilderness would be it, that like many of the other generals, Meade, Grant, and the Army of the Potomac would move back across the river, reform, and try again at a later date.  They didn’t understand Ulysses S. Grant.  At the intersection of the Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road on May 7, Grant pointed south on the Brock Road to head toward Spotsylvania Courthouse.  His men cheered.  They knew then he was not going to give up, that he had a hold of Lee by the collar and was not going to let him go.


The next battle is at Spotsylvania Courthouse.  Lee is able to muster about 52,000 men.  He’s been joined by General Longstreet’s two divisions, but he had lost Longstreet severely wounded, and R. H. Anderson had taken over Longstreet’s corps.

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At Spotsylvania it all comes together in the worst way.  No one had seen such intense and close combat as they saw at Spotsylvania, and it lasted for two weeks.  The earthworks are built with open fields of fire.  The advantages that Lee’s engineers saw at Spotsylvania were a low set of ridges on the western side and the north side, where coming from the north you had to go up against those ridges, which offered perfect fields of fire.  The works the men built there were very strong.  By the time the Army of the Potomac arrives, they are too late.  Attacks are easily repulsed by Lee’s men.  By this time they had been in combat constantly for six days, some of them for up to eight days.  Rations are short.  The only thing the men are getting is ammunition.  The confederates now have a real opinion about Grant–one calls him a barbarian.

There are two events in 1864 where war becomes the most brutal it can be–where the animal comes out in men.  One was at Spotsylvania.  On May 12, the fighting in the Mule Shoe is some of the worst any of the soldiers have ever seen.  It’s sustained for almost 22 hours in a driving rainstorm.  The initial Union success captures almost 2,300 men of Edward Johnson’s division.  Lee loses Johnson, a brigadier general, and a huge part of his army holding that section of the earthworks.  The fighting lasts throughout the day into the early evening hours, fighting in knee-deep mud.  At the Bloody Angle, the fighting was so intense and the dead fell upon each other so at times they had to call a truce to move the dead out of the way so they could continue fighting.  Those who were wounded were trampled into the mud.  Many of those who were dead were trampled into the mud and never found again.  By the next morning, when the confederates finally pulled back to their final line, leaving the outer earthworks to the Union soldiers, they were shocked at what they found on the other side.  Never had the armies fought so close together.

Even though they’ve defeated Meade’s army in two battles, at the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Courthouse, that army is not going to give up.  On May 19, Ewell’s corps makes a little foray into the Union rear in a little battle called Harris Farm, sometimes called Alsop Farm.  What Ewell finds is the AotP is not retreating but is moving south.  They run into some of the heavy artillery regiments of about 1800 men who actually behave pretty well for their first time in battle.  They really put a shellacking on Ewell’s men that day.  Everybody is sluggish and worn down by this time due to the lack of sleep, the lack of rest, and the lack of food.  To many of Lee’s men, this has been one huge, long battle.  There were several instances of Lee’s taking personal command on the field.  Where Lee is losing officers in combat, when he sees an emergency he rides right into it, which is uncharacteristic.  It happened at the Wilderness, and it happened twice on May 12 at Spotsylvania.  Lee had to take personal command in the field because some of his better officers were falling to the side.  Even  his corps commanders–A. P. Hill and Richard Ewell are sick.  Ewell is so ill that by May 25 he has to leave the army, and his corps is placed under the temporary command of Jubal Early.  Likewise, A. P. Hill is prostrate from his illnesses, but he refuses to relinquish command.  A temporary commander is placed in charge and then Hill shows up, but the next day he’s sick again and unable to go into the field. There is a constant turnover of officers in corps and division command, such as Ramseur’s brigade going through five different commanders in three weeks.

After Spotsylvania comes North Anna, about five days long.  Not a lot of strong results, but casualties are still inflicted.


The next fight, the worst, is Cold Harbor.  After two or three days of contending in their positions, Grant throws all of his armies there, the combined Army of the Potomac and Army of the James against the confederate positions with horrible casualties.  This is where a lot of confederate letters and diary entries reflect a certain attitude not only about Grant but about the Union Army as a whole, referring to them as nothing more than hogs to the slaughter.

Lee has requested additional troops be sent to his army.  The casualties he’s suffered can’t be replaced easily.  He’s rejoined by Pickett’s division around May 25-26 around the time of North Anna.  The problem Lee has is PGT Beauregard with 30,000 officers and men in the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg.  For the first part of the Overland Campaign he’s been contesting the Army of the James’ advance on Richmond and Petersburg.  He’s not willing to give up any troops to Lee’s army.  There is some rivalry there, and Beauregard will constantly write to Jefferson Davis and the War Department saying he’s got these grand ideas for counterattack against the Army of the James, but he can never do it.  They finally join forces once the Army of the Potomac moves to the outer defenses of Petersburg.

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The Overland Campaign ends at the outer defenses of Petersburg.  Most of the II Corps isn’t there, though.  Lee has sent Jubal Early and about 20,000 officers and men of the II Corps to the Shenandoah Valley and northward to invade Maryland to try to draw the Army of the Potomac away from the outer defenses of Richmond and take some of the pressure off his men.  He has barely 47,000 officers and men left to oppose the 98,000 officers and men Grant and Meade can throw against him.  It’s a race to Petersburg.  The attacks on Petersburg are handily repulsed on the first couple days in the middle of June.  Though Lee loses approximately 3200 men, that’s nothing compared to what the Federal losses were.  The total loss for Lee in the Overland Campaign was approximately 33,000 men.  The difficulty is how to replace these men.  The substitution system is broken.  The source of manpower is tapped out.

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign draws the VI Corps away, and the Petersburg Campaign breaks into a siege.  Lee doesn’t want a long siege, but he’s able to maneuver his army back and forth in the defenses of Petersburg and north of the James River and thwart every attempt made against the confederate defenses there.

In the meantime, he’s also able to build up his army.  More and more men are coming back to the army who were wounded or who were on detached duty.  In the meantime the infrastructure and logistics supply system for the army are suffering, especially the railroads.  There are times when the railroads going into Richmond and Petersburg are not functioning at all because the lines haven’t been maintained.  Part of the Richmond/Danville track is so poor that one train will take almost five days to get from Richmond to Danville and vice versa.  Trains have to reduce the amount of freight they carry because the rail system won’t support it.  To maintain the rail system, plantation owners send slaves out to work on the lines.  In some instances the slaves go out and run away.  Nothing gets done.  Now trains are actually derailing on almost a daily basis and the logistics supply are not getting to Lee’s army.


By the fall of 1864 rations are either feast or famine.  One day soldiers are well fed, the next day they get nothing.  At one point, army rations are cut down to about a quarter pound of bacon, a quarter cup of flour, four or five teaspoons of peas or beans, and a spoonful of sugar a day.  See the photo above for what that looked like.  It was always a worry of how Lee was going to feed his army.  He’s constantly worried about feeding his men.


Many of the men are threadbare, uniforms are falling apart, they can’t replace them.  Shoes especially are in dire need.  Men don’t have enough blankets or overcoats for the coming winter.  Supplies are not getting to the army.  They don’t have enough equipment.  There is also a real propensity in the army for soldiers to not take proper care of their weapons.  They don’t clean the weapons daily because they don’t have the ability or skills to do it.  In some cases they just put it off to the next day.

At one point an entire artillery battalion was declared unserviceable because the guns hadn’t been properly maintained or cleaned.  Now Lee not only has starvation and lack of supplies, but the weapons themselves are becoming defunct.

Petersburg turns into a siege.  What really symbolizes the worst of the worst comes up during the siege.  This was the Battle of the Crater.  Even though it only involves a small portion of the Army of Northern Virginia, the story gets out to the rest of the army by word of mouth, letters, couriers, newspapers.  The biggest shock of all to many of these men is the employment of the African-American troops of the IX Corps.  For the most part, what happens at the Crater is an abomination.  It’s claimed many of the black troops, as they charged forward, shouted, “No Quarter.”  One confederate soldier said “They shouted no quarter, and none was given.”  The Crater was a slaughter that lasted for hours on end.

Confidence still ran high in the army.  They still had a lot of faith.  A lot had to do with their religion.  They also had belief in Lee and belief in the Cause.  They wanted for the Union to just give up and let them go in peace.

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The photos in the spring of 1864 tell what the Army of Northern Virginia looked like.  The photos show the reality, as opposed to what many veterans wrote about, were that the men were very well equipped.  They have knapsacks, haversacks, shelter halves, blankets, canteens, etc.

Even though they were as heavily outfitted as Union soldiers, they were still usually able to move faster and fight harder.  A lot of that had to do with the dynamics of their leadership.  Lee suffered a lot in his loss of leadership.  It’s also a loss of leadership in the junior ranks–the men the soldiers in the ranks had the most contact with.

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Lee now enters into a period of severe attrition due to the lack of supply and the loss of hope for many men.  Morale will still stay pretty high overall, but more and more men are giving up hope.  They still have faith in Lee.  One wrote, “General Lee will not let us down.  General Lee will lead us to victory.”

There is also a perceived lack of civilian support for the army around November and December of 1864.  They’re reading of how destitute people at home are, not how the people at home support them.  To help repair the image a committee is put together in Richmond in December 1864 to put together a big feast to feed the Army of Northern Virginia.  There are several articles in newspapers about it.  Turkeys, mutton, vegetables, and sweet potatoes are going to fill every soldier’s belly.  It will be an incredible feast.  When it finally happens, there is never enough.  It is probably the final insult for many of these men.  When the food finally gets out on January 2, it’s really just small morsels. In some ranks they receive nothing but a loaf of bread.  In other commands they receive turkey, along bread, cheese, and coffee.  The Texas Brigade took their small portions and donated them to the poor of Richmond.  It was a big fizzle.  One soldier wrote, “the people at home don’t care.”  What lay ahead was worse–the winter of 1864-1865.


John recommends Joseph Glatthaar’s book, General Lee’s Army:  From Victory to Collapse, and J. Tracy Powell’s Lee’s Miserables:  Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox.

John did a great job with this presentation.  It was very enjoyable.

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