In the wake of the Confederate loss at Shiloh, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard worried about his situation. Expecting the Federals to press their advantage, he sent pleas to Richmond for additional reinforcements.
On April 10, 1862, Robert E. Lee, serving as Jefferson Davis’s military advisor, responded to Beauregard’s entreaties with a telegram to Gen. John C. Pemberton, then commanding the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. “Beauregard is pressed for troops,” Lee wrote. “Send, if possible, [General Daniel S.] Donelson’s Brigade of two regiments to Corinth. If Mississippi Valley is lost Atlantic states will be ruined.”
As I was reading some of Lee’s wartime papers this weekend, that particular dispatch jumped out at me. Last week, I had the chance to join several colleagues for a “Zoom Goes the History” chat sponsored by the American Battlefield Trust in which we talked about turning points of the Civil War. Gettysburg gets a lot of attention, and it often gets juxtaposed with/against Vicksburg. Sometimes, Tullahoma (rightfully) gets thrown into that discussion, too. For my part, I always give a lot more weight to Vicksburg than Gettysburg because of the huge impact it has on the overall strategic picture.
However, I thought it was interesting to get a glimpse into Lee’s thinking on the matter, albeit indirectly and in a disinterested context. Completely outside the bounds of any Gettysburg/Vicksburg context (a product of our postwar perspective, BTW, and not really a debate at the time), Lee saw the Mississippi Valley as so important that the easternmost of states of the Confederacy would be doomed without it. That seems like a pretty strong endorsement for the eventual importance of Vicksburg.
In light of Lee’s telegram, it’s a little ironic that the fall of the Gibraltar of the South would coincide with Lee’s own most notable reverse.
The dispatch casts also an ironic light on Pemberton’s situation. When he found himself in Vicksburg a year later, he was still, in a way, responsible for the security of states of his former department: South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Without the Mississippi Valley, Lee’s dispatch warned, those Atlantic states would be ruined. Being in Mississippi didn’t get Pemberton off the hook.
None of this is enough to shake anyone’s interpretation of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Lee, or Pemberton to the core, of course. I share it just because it’s another one of those fascinating shades of history that gave me something to think about in a slightly different way.