Robert E. Lee Seeks to Stop the Yankee Advance in North Carolina

He orders Gen. Leventhorpe: "Endeavor to thwart enemy's plans".

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By late 1864, Wilmington, North Carolina was the "lifeline of the Confederacy", the last open gateway between the Confederate States and the outside world. Goods imported into this great depot were placed on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, which ran from Wilmington to Richmond, Va., and taken to the Capitol. There...

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Robert E. Lee Seeks to Stop the Yankee Advance in North Carolina

He orders Gen. Leventhorpe: "Endeavor to thwart enemy's plans".

By late 1864, Wilmington, North Carolina was the "lifeline of the Confederacy", the last open gateway between the Confederate States and the outside world. Goods imported into this great depot were placed on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, which ran from Wilmington to Richmond, Va., and taken to the Capitol. There they were used to supply Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Thus, Wilmington and its railroad north were critical to the survival of the Confederacy. The Union strategy once Petersburg was besieged was to sever the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and cut off Confederate supplies, while the Confederate purpose was to prevent that at all costs.

Beginning in the summer of 1864, the Union made numerous unsuccessful attacks on the railroad around Petersburg, and its leadership began to feel that there must be a better way to cut the railroad than attacking where Lee’s entire army was handy to defend it. Thoughts turned to North Carolina, which offered two intriguing possibilities. At the southeastern part of the state, on the peninsula formed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, was situated Fort Fisher. It commanded and protected Wilmington, and if it could be taken, the supply chain could be disrupted at its southern terminus. The Fort was well defended.

In the northeastern part of the state, the Roanoke River offered a channel into the interior, where Union forces could try to cut the railroad in the middle. The Union leadership determined to send an expedition to take Fort Fisher, and selected Gen. Benjamin Butler and his Army of the James, along with a fleet of 60 warships, to make the attempt. It would also send men and ships up the Roanoke towards Fort Branch, in order to create a diversion from the actual goal of Fort Fisher, and tie down on the Roanoke any potential Confederate reinforcements.

This was a sound strategy, as it placed Union forces in a position to make a real move against the middle of the railroad if Confederates on the river folded. Troops were massed at Butler’s headquarters on December 7, but it was not until December 14 that they embarked by ship. Arriving off the North Carolina coast on the 15th, they found that the naval warships that were needed to support the mission were resupplying in Beaufort, S.C.

After days of waiting for the warships, they too had to put into port at Beaufort. The navy then sailed out while the army resupplied, and it was not until December 24 that all of the Union forces were massed around Fort Fisher. Lee was fully informed of the Union buildup against Fort Fisher early on and acted to reinforce it before an assault could be made. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division in Virginia was told to leave for the Fort, and it entrained at Richmond on December 22. Lee also got word that Union forces were moving up on the Roanoke River, and knew that he had to meet the threat there as well. He called upon the North Carolina state and Confederate troops under the command of Gen. Collett Leventhorpe for this purpose. Leventhorpe started the war as colonel of the 34th N.C. Regiment, and never afraid of a fight, was given command of a brigade.

Early in January, 1863, he fought and won the battle of White Hall, and in the spring defeated an attack by the enemy at Blount's Mill. Then with the 11th N.C. Regiment, he joined the Army of Northern Virginia and fought at Gettysburg in Pettigrew's Brigade. In the battle of the first day he was a conspicuous figure and fell severely wounded, and on the retreat from Pennsylvania was captured.

After an imprisonment of nearly nine months he was exchanged. He then accepted from Gov. Vance a commission as brigadier-general of state troops, along with command of a body in the Confederate service. He cleared the enemy from the Roanoke River, and defended the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. He was a particular favorite of Gen. Lee, who on Jan. 20, 1865, wrote “I also recommend that General Leventhorpe, in the state service, be commissioned in the Confederate service…He is the best officer in that district.” Lee’s endorsement clinched the appointment. In February, 1865, Leventhorpe was commissioned brigadier general in the Confederate Army, and served with Johnston's Army of the Tennessee until the surrender.

Here is Lee’s historic letter ordering Leventhorpe to action, an action he hoped would foil enemy designs on the Roanoke front, and aid in preserving the desperately needed seaport of Wilmington by freeing up Confederate reinforcements so they could head there.

Robert E. Lee Autograph Letter Signed, Petersburg, Va., December 18, 1864, one page, 7 1/2 by 2 l/4 inches. “Genl. Leventhorpe Tarborough, N.C. via Rock Mount. Col. Gaillard will notify you of reported movement of troops against NC. Ascertain truth if possible & endeavor to thwart enemy’s plans." (Gaillard was Lieut.-Col. P. C. Gaillard of the Charleston Battalion).

As is clear in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, in meeting the threat Leventhorpe justified Lee’s confidence. On December 23, Lee sent two letters to the Secretary of War. The first relayed Leventhorpe’s report that on December 20, Union gunboats and troops attempted to land at Poplar Point near Fort Branch on the Roanoke, but he repulsed them with loss. The second reported that Leventhorpe had attacked the Union gunboats on December 22 and driven them away. This was the very assignment that Lee had given him in this letter of December 18, and it prevented Confederates from having to defend Fort Fisher on the southern North Carolina coast and Fort Branch on the northern at the same time.

On December 25 and 26, Leventhorpe wrote that, per orders, he would send some of his troops to Wilmington to directly participate in its defense “with all the haste I can,” but related that the enemy was reinforcing his sector and the men could not really be spared. Later on the 26th, Gen. Bragg concurred with him, and had the men remain to defend the Roanoke. As for Fort Fisher, the U.S. Navy kicked off the assault on the night of December 23 with a bombardment, but the Fort was essentially undamaged. Union commanders also had to contend with Hoke’s division of reinforcements (which was arriving on the scene), and worry about the state reinforcements that the Confederates were mustering, including those under Leventhorpe. Uncertain about his operation's prospects, Butler’s attack was poorly executed, and then he ordered his forces to withdraw.

The immediate threat to the Confederacy was ended, but not for long. Just weeks later, the Union leaders mounted another expedition, this time under the competent Gen. Alfred Terry, and took Fort Fisher. This letter is on the inexpensive paper the Confederates had late in the war, and even then the scarcity of paper was such that Lee used for this letter the blank space at the bottom of another communication. It is most unusual that the entire letter is in his hand, as he normally dictated to aides and just signed his name.

It has become increasingly uncommon to see even routine correspondence of Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. To find a battle order such as this is now virtually impossible, this one being the first we have obtained in over a decade. It is from the collection of Judge Isaac Melson Meekins (1875-1946) of North Carolina, who wrote his name on the back in pencil. Meekins was a lawyer and Republican political leader who was appointed U.S. district court judge by Pres. Coolidge. He served in that capacity for over 20 years.

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