On April 22 at 5:30 p.m., William C. Davis delivered a Banner Lecture entitled "Lee's Last War Winter."
Robert E. Lee faced the coming of 1865’s spring campaign season with decided unease. His army dwindled daily from disease and desertion. Across the South the Confederacy had met with nothing but disaster the previous fall, and meanwhile Union forces steadily grew in numbers and power. His only real hope was that Abraham Lincoln might be defeated in his bid for reelection, a hope that was dashed. In that desperate winter, Lee struggled to bolster his army and persuade Richmond to adopt mass conscription, making it clear that without more men, he would be almost powerless to resist Grant. And as the spring of 1865 approached, he did one more thing that few seem aware of today. He met with a few Confederate leaders to discuss surrender and reunion in return for political concessions, and he contemplated engaging in political and public relations maneuvering to force President Jefferson Davis to go along. Even with the coming of April and the evacuation of Richmond, Lee still clung to some hope, if not for victory, then for an end short of absolute defeat.
William C. Davis is a retired professor of history and the director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books and numerous documentary screenplays in the fields of Civil War and southern history. His most recent book is Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged.
This lecture was cosponsored with the Richmond National Battlefield Park.