Lee and Guerrilla Warfare

TurningPoints-logoTwo days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a council of officers in what was left of the bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia hashed out three possible options for Robert E. Lee to consider. General John Brown Gordon, who was not present at the meeting but who heard about it later, said that the first option was “To disband and allow the troops to get away as best they could, and reform at some designated point.” In other words, Lee could later rendezvous with the remains of his army and then try to drag out the conflict indefinitely, perhaps through guerilla warfare, with the aim of wearing down the Northern will to carry on. In fact, this would be the very strategy Southern resistance would adopt during Reconstruction, eventually wearing down the will of the North to support continued occupation of the South. 

According to Gordon, though, in early April 1865, “This was abandoned because a dispersion over the country would be a dreadful infliction upon our impoverished people, and because it was most improbable that all the men would reach the rallying-point.”

Apparently no one from the weary group of officers dared bring the idea forward to Lee, but artillerist Edward Porter Alexander gave voice to the same idea on the morning of April 9. “We must either surrender,” Alexander told Lee, “or the army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their own way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor. This last course is the one which seems to me to offer us much the best chances.”

“Well, what would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee asked.

“If there is any hope for the Confederacy it is in delay,” Alexander replied, hoping for foreign recognition or northern frustration to somehow end the hostilities.

Lee demurred. His men, with no rations and under no discipline, “would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence,” he said. “The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.

As a soldier and an officer, Lee had determined to win or lose the question of independence not just through armed conflict but, specifically, on the battlefield. “[A]s for myself,” Lee told Alexander, “while you young men might afford to go to bushwacking, the only proper & dignified course for me would be to surrender myself & take the consequences of my actions.”

These exchanges have given birth, over the past 150 years, to the idea that Lee considered the possibility of a guerrilla war of some sort rather than outright surrender. To read Alexander’s account—which can be found on pp. 530-533 of his memoir Fighting for the Confederacy—Lee doesn’t seem to consider the idea at all, dismissing it casually and instantly.

Does that make his decision a kind of turning point—one nearly invisible to us because his choice really seemed like no choice at all? And because it led so quickly to the ending so well known to us?

As it happens, two of Emerging Civil War’s historians formerly worked at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, so I posed the question to them. Was Lee’s dismissal of guerrilla warfare a turning point of sorts?

Bert Dunkerly:

Lee the soldier knew that a guerrilla war was not sustainable. If his army moved west to fight unconventionally, how would he sustain it? With no base of supply or an infrastructure supporting it, how would they obtain food, medicine, and ammunition? Successful guerrilla operations often depend on outside support, as Washington knew well from the Revolution with his army’s invaluable support from the French. The North Vietnamese support from China is another, more recent example.

More importantly, however, a guerrilla war would not obtain the result Lee or anyone in the Confederacy wanted: independence. Washington certainly knew this very well. Without any of the trappings of an independent nation: a capital, a currency, a government, an established military, and most importantly, territory, such a struggle would not deliver independence. A guerrilla force fighting without those elements, without “Respectability,” as George Washington once wrote, would lack legitimacy.

Dan Davis:

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union armies under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Questions still abound regarding Lee breaking up the army to engage in guerrilla warfare and continue the conflict. To a certain degree, this option was certainly feasible for Lee; however, it was not likely to be sustainable.

Despite the fact that his army was surrounded the morning of its capitulation, elements from Lee’s cavalry corps had successfully slipped through the Federal vice and headed for the city of Lynchburg. This movement showed that small pockets of Confederate soldiers could evade capture to rendezvous at a pre-determined location. Elements from other Confederate armies were able to accomplish similar feats in the following weeks and months.

Should Lee haven taken this route and been successful, though, he would have other factors to consider—chiefly that of logistics.

One of Lee’s main concerns during the retreat from Richmond and Petersburg was the ability to supply his army. Had Lee ordered his small force to disperse, the issue of supply would have remained. Much of Virginia, and the Confederacy for that matter, had been devastated by the Union war effort. The means of subsistence for an army, even one relatively small in number, was difficult to procure.

Another element necessary for the successful operation of a guerilla effort is the support of the local population. It is difficult to determine if the Southern people, after four years of death and destruction, would have been willing to support such an endeavor.

Perhaps, however, asking such questions are moot. Guerrilla warfare simply was not in Lee’s DNA.

Lee was a strong admirer of and follower of the precepts of George Washington. Like Washington, Lee was bound by his honor and duty to do the right thing for the men in his charge. Two days prior to the surrender, in correspondence with Grant, Lee had expressed his “desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood.” Lee understood that any further combat, especially guerrilla-type warfare, would be devastating not only to the soldiers, but to the civilians as well. The morning that Lee met Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, he commented to his aide, Walter Taylor, that such actions would be “cruel.”

Much to Lee’s credit, he made a decision that set in motion a series of events that brought about the end of one of the worst conflicts in the history of the United States.