VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Lee’s Defense of Virginia TRT: 4:50.
Okay tell us about the plan for defending the state of Virginia by General Robert E Lee? General Robert E Lee, who was charged with the defense of Virginia – the overall commander of all Virginia forces – looked at the state and decided that he couldn’t defend everywhere, every time. So he looked for very specific points that he could defend. critical strategic points in the state of Virginia. You need to remember that in 1861 Virginia ran all the way from the Ohio river where Wheeling is today the western panhandle of current West Virginia, all the way, of course, to Norfolk. Virginia was a huge state, very expansive. Of course the Virginia border was the boundary between the United States of America and the confederacy. Virginia separated two nations. He knew that it would be difficult to try to defend his state because he knew that the federals would be invading. They knew that even before Virginia succeeded that Virginia would become the target of federal invasion. Complicating matters for Lee is this: the capital of the confederacy would move from Montgomery, Alabama, where it had been since February. When the confederacy was formally established to Richmond and in May of 1861 the move would occur. President Jefferson Davis, his cabinet officials would come and locate and the principal center of government for the confederacy would now become Richmond. Of course this makes Richmond even a more inviting target for union incursion. So it fell upon General Lee to defend the state and, ultimately, to defend the capital the confederacy and the northern frontier of the confederacy. So he looks at the state. He pulls out his map and of course he’s a native Virginian, so he knows much about his home state and he says this: “well, let’s start with the area around Norfolk. We need to protect Norfolk. We need to keep Norfolk under control and to ensure that the union navy and union armies can’t come into the soft underbelly of Virginia. So Norfolk becomes a principal area of defense. Of course the peninsula between the James and York river, approaching Richmond becomes another area of defense that Lee will select. Then he moves north and he moves all the way north to Manassas Junction where railroads come together, only a little over 30 miles from Washington D.C., But there, by Lee holding Manassas Junction with confederate forces, he could ensure that there would not be an easy route directly south from Washington to Richmond. So that’s a blockading force, basically, to try to protect Richmond. Then we move west and north to Harpers Ferry and, again, he selects Harper’s Ferry, because it, strategically, is located in the Shenandoah Valley. the Shenandoah Valley was critical to the confederacy. It was a place where huge amounts of food will be produced for confederate armies. It also was a logical location of northern invasion. So if lee could have a force at Harper’s Ferry, he could help block that invasion and he could also help control the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. That then takes us further west all the way to Grafton. Grafton today is in West Virginia, but Grafton was another one of those very significant railroad towns that Lee felt if he could hold that he could help defend western Virginia and help ensure that western Virginia does not collapse. Western Virginia was the area where the anti-secessionists lived. Western Virginia was where the people who voted against the secession resided and it was vulnerable to union invasion from Pennsylvania and from Ohio. So by holding Grafton, he hoped Lee did what he could to keep western Virginia very solidly in Virginia and in favor of the confederacy. So think of that huge arc running all the way from Norfolk to Richmond in the peninsula to Manassas to Harper’s Ferry and then ultimately to Grafton. Those became the points of defense that Robert E. Lee selected to protect Virginia at the outbreak of the civil war.