The Armies of the Confederacy in May 1864

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle Flag of the ConfederacyAs both sides braced themselves for combat across the South, the Armies of the Confederacy appeared to be relegated to a defensive posture with occasional flashes of offense. President Jefferson Davis, always hands-on constantly meddled in the military affairs of the Confederacy, particularly in the Western Theater. Davis who was a West Point graduate and a former Secretary of War considered himself on a par with most of his generals in military knowledge.

In the Western Theater the Confederate Army of Tennessee was totally overmatched against the Union Army of the Tennessee. At the start of the Atlanta Campaign General Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Confederates. His command was outnumbered by almost 2-to-1. Johnston was a cautious commander who continually put his army in a defensive posture. But Sherman was an aggressive general who constantly maneuvered around the Confederate flanks in order to advance on Atlanta.

The four corps in the 50,000-man army were commanded by:

Further south the Union Army of the Gulf, commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, had approximately 30,000 men. They were opposed ACW Western Theater Overviewby Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor with a force that varied from 6,000 to 15,000. The Red River Campaign which had started on March 10th would continue to May 22nd and resulted in a Confederate victory.

This campaign was planned by then-Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, and a diversion from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant‘s plan to surround the main Confederate armies by using Banks’s Army of the Gulf to capture Mobile, Alabama. Mobile would be captured in August with a joint Navy-Army campaign.

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Meanwhile, in the Shenandoah Valley Maj. Gen. Franz Siegal had been ordered by Grant to drive south to Lynchburg, an important rail center, secure the Valley and threaten Lee’s flank. By doing so the Union forces would also cut off Lee’s army from the rich agricultural resources of the Valley. Siegal was given 10,000 men to accomplish his tasks.

Opposing him was a smaller force of approximately 4,000 commanded by Major General John C. Breckinridge. His command consisted of two infantry brigades under John C. Echols and Gabriel C. Wharton, a cavalry brigade commanded by John D. Imboden, and other independent commands. This included the cadet corps of VMI, which had an infantry battalion of 247 cadets commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Scott Ship and a two gun artillery section.

Within a month Lee would send Lt. Gen. Jubal Anderson Early and additional troops that increased the Army of the Valley District to approximately 14,000 men.

The main Confederate army in the Eastern Theater was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. By May of 1864 Lee’s army had seen the bulk of the fighting in the east as had their opponent, the Army of the Potomac. By now both armies had weeded out the incompetent officers, the shirkers and the deserters. Both formations were composed of superb veteran formations who were fully prepared for the final battles of the war.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia comprised about 64,000 men and 274 guns and was organized into four corps:

Jubal Early, as noted above, would be sent to the Shenandoah Valley with reinforcements in June of 1864. He would conduct a campaign from that time until the early fall. Early’s invasion of the North got as far as the gates of Washington. Grant responded by dispatching Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to the Valley. At times outnumbering the Confederates three to one, Sheridan defeated Early in three battles, starting in early August, and laid waste to much of the agricultural properties in the Valley, an event that is still remembered today as “The Burning.”

Overland Campaign MapThe Confederacy had state militias throughout the South. As the war proceeded state governors were reluctant to send additional troops to the main Confederate armies. Instead, they tended to retain their militia formations to maintain order and defend their home grounds. This reluctance to supply the main Confederate armies with replacements contributed to their attrition in battle.

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The Confederacy had a number of additional formations, particularly in the Trans-Mississippi region, but they did not have a substantial impact on the fighting. They also recruited native Americans in the West among the Choctaw and Cherokees. The most prominent among the native Americans were Stand Watie, a Choctaw, and Jackson McCurtain, a Cherokee. Stand Watie rose to the rank of brigadier general.


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