Why Bobby Lee Had More Men (and Lost More Men) Than Anyone Knew in 1864

by Brett Schulte on February 22, 2013 · 7 comments

The Overland Campaign: War of Attrition?

The standard story of the Overland Campaign is this:

  1. Grant had at least a 2:1 advantage over Lee in the Overland Campaign (and Early maintains a 3:1 advantage!)
  2. Grant could gain ample new recruits, Lee had no manpower reserves to draw on
  3. Grant doggedly used these advantages to grind Lee down in a war of attrition
  4. Lee is quoted as saying that once it becomes a siege it is only a matter of time until the end
  5. There was  nothing Lee could do to stave off these overwhelming numbers and prevent a siege
  6. Grant wins not by good generalship but by understanding the cost in men and being willing to sacrifice as many men as it takes to pin Lee down
  7. Southerners fight courageously against overwhelming odds and with no chance to win

Steven Newton mentions the following historians by name in Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864, (my numbers in parentheses for arguments they are using)1:

  • Douglas Southall Freeman (~1, 2)
  • Clifford Dowdey (2)
  • John G. Randall and David Donald (2,3)
  • William D. Matter (2)
  • Gordon C. Rhea (2)

Rhea, for one, has produced what I consider to be the very best set of books ever written on the Overland Campaign.  Despite this even he falls into the “exhausted manpower reserve” fallacy.  I say “fallacy” for reasons explored in this essay.

Personally, I think these argument insult not only Grant (which they were originally designed to do before being blindly accepted up to the present day), but also Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.  At best, it is a gross oversimplification of what happened in 1864, and at worst it is a willful misrepresentation of facts, some facts of which are still appearing with new scholarship on the subject.

The Standard Argument Arises “Early”

Jubal Early

I’ve spent a good deal of time working my way through the Southern Historical Society Papers to find articles on the Siege of Petersburg, and I was struck by the number of articles arguing strongly for specific Confederate strengths, especially in the late war battles of 1864-65 and at Gettysburg.  General Jubal Early fired a strong volley very early in the history of the Papers.  In Volume 2, page 6, the editorial comment on Early’s article titled “The Relative Strength of the Armies of General Lee and Grant” stated the following (emphasis mine)2:

The relative strength of the Federal and Confederate armies is a matter of great importance, and its proper solution is surrounded by obvious difficulties. Even our own people are in profound ignorance of the great odds against which we fought, while Northern writers have persistently misrepresented the facts. We feel, therefore, that we will be doing valuable service in publishing in our Papers the following letter of General Early to the London Standard in reply to General Badeau, General Grant’s staff officer and biographer.

In the article itself, Early takes great exception to this “remarkable” statement of Adam Badeau, a staff officer of Ulysses S. Grant and later the author of Military History of Ulysses S. Grant (volume 2 being the key volume), penned in a letter to the London Standard after the war3:

The calculation that Grant had three times as many men as Lee has been obtained by omitting Longstreet’s corps altogether from the estimate, and by giving only Lee’s force present for duty on the Rapidan ; while in reckoning Grant’s numbers, not only the present for duty are counted, but those constituting what, in military parlance, is called the total, which includes the sick, the extra duty men, and various others, invariably amounting, in any large army, to many thousands. Manifestly, either Lee’s total should be compared with Grant’s total, or Grant’s present for duty with Lee’s present for duty. But besides this, in order to make out Grant’s army three times as large as Lee’s, Grant’s two forces in the Valley of Virginia and on the James river (each at least one hundred miles from the Wilderness) are included in the estimate of his strength ; while the troops which Lee had in front of these separate forces of Grant are left out of the calculation altogether. I repeat that in the battle of the Wilderness Lee had about 72,000 engaged,while Grant had 98,000 present for duty according to the confidential field returns made at the time by each general to his own Government, when no general would intentionally misstate or mislead.

Early spends the better part of the article explaining why Grant’s numbers were much larger and Lee’s numbers were much smaller than those Badeau proposes.  And the debate over Lee and Grant’s respective strengths was on, a debate which Early and other proponents of the Lost Cause won, at least for over 100 years, in the decades after the war.

Steven Newton Counts “Apples” on Both Sides

Lost For The Cause: The Confederate Army In1864 Newton 2000

Rather than wading into a debate which at the time did not have access to returns like historians of today (or even after the Official Records came out), let’s skip ahead all the way to the year 2000.  In his book Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864, Steven H. Newton attempts to rectify what Badeau recognized as a problem shortly after the war.  The historian takes the various (and often confusing for the novice) terms for unit strengths and converts these to Present for Duty (PFD for short).  In this way he can try to compare Lee’s PFD versus Grant’s PFD on an apples to apples basis.  In Newton’s chapter on Grant versus Lee, “Virginia: The Attrition Myth”, he comes to the conclusion that on or about May 1, 1864, the following PFD totals were available to Grant and Lee4:

Camp Pope Publishing

Grant

Army of the Potomac: 102,869 PFD

Ninth Corps: 19,250 PFD

Army of the James: 36,956 PFD

Union Total: 159,075 PFD

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Lee

Army of Northern Virginia and Department of Richmond: 85,540 PFD

Confederate Total: 85,540 PFD

Confederate PFD strength as a percentage of Union PFD strength: 53.8%

At first glance it appears that in Newton’s estimation, Grant did not have even a 2:1 manpower advantage as the Spring Campaign of 1864 opened, much less the 3:1 claimed at times by Early.  Looking more closely at Newton’s numbers, he divides the Confederates by department as follows5:

Department of Northern Virginia

  • 65,141 PFD on Rapidan Line
  • Valley District: 2,429 PFD
  • At Hanover Junction: 6,531 PFD
  • Troops en route from Richmond: 882 PFD
  • Total: 74,983 PFD

Department of Richmond (incl. tiny Dept of Henrico)

  • 10,458 PFD

Confederate Total

  • 85, 541 PFD (not sure where the slight discrepancy arises)

Looking more carefully at these numbers, we see that Grant had 122,119 PFD on the Rapidan line as the Overland Campaign commenced.  Likewise, Lee had 65,141 PFD with another 882 PFD on the way, a total of 66,023 PFD on the Rapidan line or on the way as the Overland Campaign commenced.  Taking Lee’s strength as a percentage of Grant’s strength, we get 53.34%, a very slight difference from the overall percent total.

Newton’s estimates, if correct, indicate that Grant didn’t even outnumber Lee 2:1, much less the more ridiculous claims of 3:1.  I’ve not really opened too many eyes to anything for experienced Civil War readers to this point, but I wanted to make sure modern scholarship was taken into account first.  To be fair, some corners of the Civil War world have challenged Newton’s methods, so make sure you take the time to buy/look at the book first to see if you agree.  I do, for the record.

After 40,000+ Casualties, Lee’s Army Has Better Strength Odds on June 30, 1864.  How?

Now we come to the part where modern research starts diverging sharply from the standard campaign story.  Continuing further into Newton’s chapter on “Virginia: The Attrition Myth”, the author finds that Lee’s army was reported to have lost 41, 138 men from May 4 to June 30, 1864, from the Wilderness to the first two offensives against Petersburg.  Newton then challenges the attrition story directly6:

Confederate losses thus reported represented 48.1% of their  initial strength (although it will soon be demonstrated that these estimates are far too low), while Federal casualties accounted for 49.2%–virtually identical rates of attrition.  According to the theory that Lee’s losses were irreplaceable and Grant’s were not, and given the tens of thousands of reinforcements funneled into the Union armies during the same period, the strength ratios between the contending armies around Richmond and Petersburg should have tilted considerably in favor of the Federals by 30 June 1864 (the next date for which reliable Confederate returns are available).

But they don’t.  The following numbers tell the tale7:

  • Union PFD Around Richmond and Petersburg, June 30, 1864: 110,262 PFD
  • Confederate PFD Around Richmond and Petersburg, June 30, 1864: 62,193 PFD
  • Confederate PFD strength as a percentage of Union PFD strength: 56.4% (an increase of 2.6% in Lee’s favor)

If you include Early and Breckinridge because Union forces which would be detached in roughly 10 days were counted in the Union total, you get an even more startling picture:

  • Union PFD Around Richmond and Petersburg, June 30, 1864: 110,262 PFD
  • Confederate PFD Around Richmond and Petersburg, June 30, 1864: ~73,193 PFD
  • Confederate PFD strength as a percentage of Union PFD strength: 66.4% (an increase of 12.6% in Lee’s favor)

Clearly, Grant’s “grinding” wasn’t working at least through early summer 1864.  More importantly, how could Lee suffer at least 41,138 casualties through June 30, 1864 and still have 73,193 PFD on June 30, 1864?  He would have needed 28,791 replacements, men who weren’t supposed to be there.  But they were (and then some), and Newton produces an entire page of reinforcements with PFD numbers to pr0ve it.  In fact, Lee obtained 57,938 additional men through reinforcements (~45,000) and wounded returned to duty (~12,600) from May 1-June 30, 1864.

This brings about the obvious question, which Newton again asks, “If Lee started with 85,541 men, gained 45,000 reinforcements along with keeping 12,600 men returned to duty, and only had 73,193 PFD on June 30, what happened to the other men who should have been there?”   He answers that question by asserting that the Confederacy lost far more men as casualties in May-June 1864 than has previously been considered the accepted number.8

All of these considerations should firmly wipe away the attrition myth, and should cause future scholars to change the way they think about how the Overland Campaign was fought and decided.

Alfred Young: Studying Confederate Strength and Casualties, One Man at a Time

Lees Army During The Overland Campaign Young 2013

That I went back and reread Newton’s book at all was due to the fact that I was alerted late last year to a new book by Alfred Young on Confederate strengths and casualties in the Overland Campaign.  I was not surprised, therefore, to note that Newton mentioned the work of Alfred Young and Bryce Suderow on Confederate strengths and casualties in 1864 in the notes of his book.  Newton’s hope that researchers and scholars would build on Lost for the Cause will shortly become a reality.  I’ve only managed to gain bits and pieces of insight into Young’s methods, but it appears that he methodically pored through the Confederate Compiled Service Records (CSRs for short, available at Fold3.com for those interested), Confederate casualty lists in newspapers, and other available sources over more than a decade to come up with a much better picture of the men available to Lee as well as the men he lost in the Overland Campaign.  The promotional blurb associated with the book offers a tease (emphasis mine):

 The prevailing narrative depicts Confederates as outstripped nearly two to one and portrays Grant suffering losses at a rate nearly double that of Lee. Many Civil War scholars contend that the campaign proved a clear numerical victory for Lee but a tactical triumph for Grant. Young’s decade of research, however, contests that notion with new statistical data.    Through careful and thorough analysis of information compiled from the National Archives and personal estates Young challenges common assumptions about the Overland Campaign, showing clearly that Lee’s army stood far larger in strength and size and suffered much higher casualties than previously believed.

I’ve signed on for a review copy of the book, and I hope to make contact with Mr. Young in the coming weeks in order to interview him in depth about his methods.  Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study has the potential to be one of the most important Civil War books published at least this decade, and probably since the beginning of the century.  I for one can’t wait.

  1. Newton, Steven H. Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Savas Publishing Company: 2000), p. 67
  2. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 2 (July to December 1876) (Richmond, Va.: Geo. W. Gary, Printer and Stationer: 1877), p. 6
  3. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 2 (July to December 1876) (Richmond, Va.: Geo. W. Gary, Printer and Stationer: 1877), p. 7
  4. Newton, Steven H. Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Savas Publishing Company: 2000), p. 68
  5. Newton, Steven H. Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Savas Publishing Company: 2000), p. 185, 205
  6. Newton, Steven H. Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Savas Publishing Company: 2000), p. 70
  7. Newton, Steven H. Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Savas Publishing Company: 2000), p. 70
  8. Newton, Steven H. Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864 (Savas Publishing Company: 2000), pp. 70-72
Camp Pope Publishing

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh February 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Very interesting information indeed!

Reply

Dennis February 23, 2013 at 9:58 am

Though the article may be very well presented, the title is very distasteful… Calling the Honorable General Robert E. Lee Bobby is disgusting, to say the least.

Reply

Brett Schulte February 23, 2013 at 10:25 am

Dennis,

I’m sorry you feel that way. It was more of a play on references to “Sam” Grant and “Bobby” Lee that you hear occasionally in reference to the Grant vs. Lee theme, especially in war games. For instance, here’s the Columbia Games combined rules for their games, called “Bobby Lee” and “Sam Grant”, respectively, which I happened to be looking at recently: Sam Grant and Bobby Lee

Hypothetically speaking, would you be offended if I referred to Ulysses S. Grant as “Sam” Grant? Honest question.

I meant no disrespect to General Lee. The more I study the last year of the war the more it becomes clear that he tried to do almost everything himself as his command structure was decimated, more than likely shortening his own life in the process.

Brett

Reply

Ned February 23, 2013 at 3:51 pm

‘Bobby’ or ‘Bobbie’ Lee has been used for over a century by civil war participants and historians, so I dont see what the big deal is.

Reply

Chris Coleman February 23, 2013 at 1:39 pm

While I am not a particular student of the eastern theater, I found your discussion of the numbers for the Wilderness Campaign a revelation. I too have accepted without question the standard wisdom regarding Grant’s numbers and Lee’s attrition. Well done; I look forward to more in this vein. The fact is, 150 years on, we are still learning new things about the Late Unpleasantness.

As regard your “disrespect” to Bobby Lee, all I can say is that that nickname is mild compared to the things said about other Confederate and Union generals by their own men. On the Union side: “Old Brains,” “Fuss and Feathers,” “Oh-oh” Howard, etc.; and the things said about Bragg and Hood by the men of the Army of Tennessee were enough to make their ears burn. This sanctification of Confederate leaders was part of the postwar Lost Cause myth. The leaders on both sides were men; capable of human error and personal faults, and putting layers of plaster over them and burning incense at their alters is a disservice to them as soldiers and as men. This is as true of Lincoln and Grant as it is of the pantheon of the Lost Cause.

Reply

Brett Schulte February 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Chris,

Thanks for the comments. One of the things which became apparent to me after studying the Siege of Petersburg (and naturally going back to fact check things during the Overland Campaign) is that too often everyone (myself included) just accepts agenda driven postwar statements without taking a critical look. The more often studied Eastern battles of 1861-3 even suffer from this to some extent, but it seems (without any type of analytical study on my part) that the battles from the Wilderness to Appomattox are just glossed over with an air of inevitability. While I agree that this could probably be done for anything from November 1864 on, these massive, casualty filled battles should be given the attention they deserve. I’m doing my best to shed light on them when and where I can with my admittedly small corner of Civil War cyberspace.

Reply

Fred Ray February 23, 2013 at 4:36 pm

It’s a good book and as you say quite interesting. One of Newton’s surprising findings conclusions was that attrition actually worked in favor of the Confederates in the Overland Campaign, which is at odds with those who say that Grant “gutted” the ANV. I always wondered how the ANV was still able to strike telling blows against the AOP late in 1864 — Newton gives us one reason.

What I’d like to see is a breakdown of Union officer casualties, particularly for the AOP. I think is one of the main reasons for its sometimes poor performance later that year.

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