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A Guerrilla War?

On April 2, 1865, heavy bombardment by Union artillery was followed by Union infantry surging across the defensive line which had sustained Confederate forces protecting Richmond, Virginia. General Lee had already lost a quarter of his forces through earlier attacks and was unable to stop the Federal break through. He notified President Jefferson Davis that he would have to abandon Richmond and raced to get to a supply dump at Amelia Courthouse and then to join General Johnson whose army was facing Sherman’s army in North Carolina.

The supplies had not arrived at Amelia Courthouse. Hungry troops marched on, hoping to reach supplies at Appomattox Station. When Union forces got there first, Lee accepted that it was over and surrendered on April 9.

Instead of surrendering, could Lee’s army have disbanded and slipped away to continue a guerrilla war? Some historians have suggested that the Confederacy could have survived in this way. Porter Alexander suggested this in a long conversation with Lee at the time.

Lee’s answer, as recorded in the Official Records was, “There are here only about 15,000 soldiers with muskets. Suppose two thirds, say 10,000, got away. Divided among the states, their numbers would be too insignificant to accomplish the least good. Yes, the surrender of this army is the end of the Confederacy…Suppose I should take your suggestion & order the army to disperse & make their way to their homes. The men would have no rations & they would be under no discipline. They are already demoralized by four years of war. They would have to rob & plunder to procure subsistence. The country would be full of lawless bands in every part…Then the enemy’s cavalry would pursue in the hopes of catching the principal officers, & wherever they went there would be fresh rapine & destruction.”

After leaving Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis met with General Johnston in Greensboro, North Carolina and insisted that his army could scatter, move farther south and continue the war.

Johnson later wrote, “I represented that under such circumstances it would be the greatest of human crimes for us to attempt to continue the war; for, having neither money nor credit, nor arms but those in the hands of our soldiers, nor ammunition but that in their cartridge boxes …the effect of our keeping the field would be, not to harm the enemy, but to complete the devastation of our country and ruin of its people.”

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