In the Campbell Brown papers he leaves us a description of a meeting at the Harrison House on the afternoon of May 11, 1864. Supposedly Gen. Lee orders the guns removed from the salient at this time, and for the reasons listed. The first two paragraphs are written based on Maj. Browns account. After that I take a look at the meeting and offer a slightly different view.
Late in the afternoon Gen. Lee presided over a gathering of many of the senior officers of the Second Corps. These men, according to Maj. Campbell Brown, came together at the Harrison House near the center of the salient. At the time this was the site of Gen. Ewell’s headquarters. (a15) Among those present were Generals. Lee, Ewell, Long, Rodes and their staffs. Obviously this wasn’t a council of war as neither Maj. Gen. Johnson nor Gen. Gordon, commanding two of the three divisions of the corps were present. Nor apparently was Col. Thomas Carter who was supposedly in command of the artillery within the salient. Likely they were occupied along their lines at the time of the gathering. (a16)
Some accounts by private soldiers along the lines of Rodes division claim that the officers were visible outside in the yard. Also that occasional overshoots by Federal artillery interrupted the proceedings. During the gathering couriers from the scouts and skirmishers were continually bringing in reports. They generally were reporting that the enemy appeared to be withdrawing the artillery and trains. As the meeting continued the idea that the Federals were withdrawing toward Fredericksburg gained credence among those present. That came to be the belief of Gen. Lee himself. He also noted that no enemy had yet appeared in front of Gen. Johnson’s line. (a17) Accordingly, he ordered Genls. Ewell and Long respectively to withdraw both Johnson’s infantry and the artillery supporting it. This would allow both the men and horses to be fed and rested prior to a move. (a18) Gen. Ewell responded that given the fact that the evening was very wet, that the men had their shelters prepared, that they would be more comfortable in the trenches than out in the open. Gen. Lee agree and gave his permission for the infantrymen to remain in their positions. However, the orders for Gen. Long to remove the artillery directly supporting Johnson’s division stood. Those batteries would be withdrawn to graze and rest the horses. (a19)
Maj. Brown’s account gives valuable insight into the thoughts of the Confederate command that afternoon. Yet a examination of the facts suggests that it should not be taken literally. While Lee was likely anxious to remove his troops from what he felt was a dangerously exposed position this was hardly the time to do so. Indeed, where would they be moved to? There were, to this writer at least, only two realistic options for a move. Either withdraw the men to a line that had been started earlier in the day which ran along the high ground behind the Harrison House or perhaps to reoccupy Gordon’s line. Neither one of these were attractive as the first was incomplete while Gordon’s line had already been proven vulnerable to Federal artillery fire. That fire, which raked it from end to end, had forced the evacuation on it shortly after it was built. These thoughts of course presupposes that Lee was not planning on assuming the offensive, nor was there conclusive evidence that the Federals were indeed moving.
As for moving the artillery supporting Johnson’s line that was also not entirely the case. By having Gen. Long remove the battalions of Nelson and Page he removed those battalions dedicated to Johnson’s direct support. However, Cutshaw’s battalion while supporting both Johnson and Rodes was physically located within Johnson’s lines. Thus, technically should have been included in Lee’s instructions. Yet, as we shall soon see, there was no intention of withdrawing his battalion nor Hardaway who was supporting Rodes. Rather both battalions were to march with the infantry when it moved. This writer’s opinion is that, almost exactly like the evening preceding the movement from the Wilderness, plans were being made for the infantry to be accompanied by a modest force of artillery. The rest would proceed separately and minimize disruption. By moving separately, they would not slow the progress of the infantry. Or, perhaps lessons had been learned the previous day. Then artillery withdrawing from exposed positions along the West Face of the salient had delayed and disrupted troops trying to move across the salient to join in the counterattack.