Foreshadowing with Sherman and Lee

The text of a Robert E. Lee letter going to auction reminded me that there is no book-length treatment of Lee, commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. It was a period in which he earned the nicknames "Granny" and "King of Spades." From the letter:

"The strength of the enemy, as far as I am able to judge, exceeds the whole force that we have in the state; it can be thrown with great celerity against any point, and far outnumbers any force we can bring against it in the field," Lee wrote to Gov. Francis Wilkinson Pickens on Dec. 27, 1861.

You'd think he was up against the legendary juggernaut that pop history fashioned out of McClellan's army, but no, he is up against BG Tim (Thomas West) Sherman's expeditionary force. A recent newspaper column points toward a similar Lee letter to the Rebel SecWar:

Lee remarked in a letter to Benjamin that if Sherman had elected to be bold, there would have been little to stop him from cutting the railroad and establishing a major force on the mainland.

From the same article:

The Federal forces landed more than 10,000 troops that first day, and thereafter continued to add to their force almost daily, so that a month later there were more than 30,000 Federals ensconced on Hilton Head and in nearby Beaufort.

This author seems to be using contemporary Rebel sources without reference to the Union records. Here's what Sherman told his own SecWar on January 6, 10 days after Lee's "celerity" letter:

The actual force under my command is 14,768, rank and file, including about 600 in Saint Helena Sound, 3,000 on Port Island, 200 at Fort Seward, 1,400 at Tybee [Island], leaving about 9,500 on hand at Hilton Head. I calculate to have available for the field out this force, say 9,000 men. These troops are all infantry except one company of light artillery. Before a step can be taken towards the enemy's force we should have a full regiment of good cavalry and at least another battery of light artillery.

No sign here of 30,000 federals. No sign that this expedition can be thrown with great celerity against any point. Sherman's mission had been to seize a Southern port for use by the blockading squadron; his force was tailored for port defense, not for field operations against a mobile enemy. Meanwhile, what were Lee's forces? Our newspaper columnist gives this:

At the time, Lee commanded one full regiment - North Carolina's Volunteers, six companies from the South Carolina Volunteers, and one South Carolina cavalry regiment ...

Classic mistake: this recap does not give the forces under Lee's command throughout South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, but only the non-militia strength at Port Royal under BG Pemberton. And the info is wrong, shortchanging the Rebels by at least two companies and two batteries, according to this document.

And this is precisely where Lee, in his to-be-auctioned letter, misleads his superiors, newspaper columnists, and perhaps himself: "[Sherman's expedition] exceeds the whole force that we have in the state [SC]..."

That is the sort of conversation you might have with the governor about his own state; but it does not address all the forces you have at your disposal to protect his state.

Sherman's actual forces were divided between Georgia and South Carolina; they could not possibly have outnumbered Lee's actual forces in the three states under his command; even to claim that they outnumbered all South Carolina forces was a big stretch, unless militia was excluded and forces not on the coast were ignored, and if a high estimate of Union strength was being referred to ("as far as I am able to judge"). Sherman had seized no major ports in November or December in part because the seaboard was well garrisoned and fortified. Port Royal was going to be a consolation prize. To take it, he would need to beseige with green, garrison troops and almost no artillery.

But the tone was struck. Lee had brought it with him from Western Virginia; he would take it with him to Northern Virginia. He faced a juggernaut that could move in any direction. He needed reinforcements. His units could not be transferred for any reason. As for Sherman's failure to launch the Union colossus against poor Lee, why that hearkened back to an insight from their old army days together. Lee told people that Sherman was overly cautious.

Which reminds us that the bold patterns of historical truth are to be sought in primary material, like letters, and not in the received wisdom of pop history.