Could General Robert E. Lee's Last-Ditch Gambit Have Saved the Confederacy?

Joseph E. Lowry

By the early spring of 1865, the Southern Confederacy was on the cusp of extinction. In every theater of the four-year-old Civil War, the gray-clad Rebels were getting the worst of things. In the West, the hard-fighting but poorly led Army of Tennessee had been literally eviscerated by General John Bell Hood’s useless taking of life at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. After the loss of its namesake state, Hood’s army had virtually ceased to exist as a functional military unit.

In the deep South, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union army had cut a relentless swath of destruction 60 miles wide through Georgia, and was now wreaking even more havoc as it marched northward through the Carolinas to unite with General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac somewhere in Virginia. Confederate General Joseph Johnston, commanding the forces opposed to Sherman, admitted in a letter to General Robert E. Lee that he could do no more than “annoy” Sherman’s progress.

In the East, conditions were deteriorating just as rapidly for the Confederates. In January 1865, Fort Fisher, guardian of the port of Wilmington, N.C., fell to a combined Union naval-land assault, effectively closing off the South’s last access to the outside world.

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