New Market: Lee’s Message to Breckinridge


Today, I’m prepping notes for another Battle of New Market presentation, and as I went through General Lee’s letters to General Breckinridge again, the wording grabbed my attention. Take a look:

May 1, 1864

General: I gather from the reports of scouts recently from the Valley that Averell has set out on an expedition, the design of which is either to reach some point on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, or to effect the capture of Staunton. The general impression is that he will pursue the route which took him on his last raid. I think it would be well to have everything prepared to meet him, and, in conjunction with General Imboden, to destroy him, if possible. The enemy will probably make a diversion from the Kanawha Valley to keep your forces occupied while he accomplishes his main design. I am inclined to think that his object is to move on Staunton. If so, you might move against his line of communication while Imboden holds him in front, or concoct some other plan of defeating him. These movements in the western department will probably be simultaneous with the attack by Grant here, who has recently been reinforced by Burnside’s army from Annapolis, so it will be impossible to communicate with you. A late report from a citizen places General Sigel at Martinsburg, but this conflicts with former reports.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee

At first glance, it’s straightforward – just detailing the military situation as Lee understands it while Breckinridge prepares to defend the Confederate Trans-Allegheny Department. Look again at the phrasing:

“I think it would be well…”

“if possible”

“you might move”

Similar to other orders and correspondence, Lee does not lay down the law of how the campaign must be run. He offers advice to Breckinridge, guidance rather than absolutely directives.  In this case, that’s partly practical because Lee knows that communication will be limited once the campaigns open.

Lee wanted to trust his officers. Many times, those officers repaid the trust well and took the initiatives allowed by Lee’s loosely worded orders. Breckinridge – by May 1, 1864 – had not served directly with Lee. The two generals had met in Richmond and certainly knew each other’s reputations. But Lee opens the door for Breckinridge to do what he thinks best in the Shenandoah Valley region as long as he works to defeat the enemy and protect Lee’s far flank. Perhaps there’s a hint of a Jacksonian trust and relationship there.

While there are other case when Lee’s loose orders backfired, in Breckinridge’s case for the New Market Campaign, it proved the basic directives. Breckinridge was capable of “filling in the blanks” and devising a strategy, campaign, and ultimately, winning the Battle of New Market which had significant impact. The correspondence in this case actually set Breckinridge up for success, allowing him to make the necessary decisions about the details without being micromanaged by a general across the mountains.

Wording makes a difference. The exact words of Lee’s May 1 correspondence to Breckinridge offered guidelines and conveyed trust. It becomes a matter for discussion which was actually most important or if the qualities are inseparable.

1 Response to New Market: Lee’s Message to Breckinridge

  1. With Lee not being onsite he really had no choice but to ‘trust’ the officers who were there. He had times of being burned by subordinates actions even when he was present.

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