HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
October 24, 1864.
CAPT. J. K. MITCHELL,
Flag-officer Commanding James River Squadron.
CAPTAIN: Your letter of the 23d instant is received, and in compliance with your request I will give you my views as to the service I deem important to be rendered by the Navy in the present posture of affairs.
In my opinion, the enemy is already as near Richmond as he can Be allowed to come with safety, and it is certain that the defense of the city would be easier did our lines extend lower down the river, and becomes more difficult the farther we are compelled to retire.
If the enemy succeeds in throwing a force to the south bank in rear of General Pickett's lines, it will necessitate not only the withdrawal of General P.'s forces but also the abandonment of Petersburg and its railroad connections, throwing the whole army back to the defenses of Richmond.
I should regard this as a great disaster and as seriously endangering the safety of the city. We should not only lose a large section of the country from which our position around Petersburg enables us to draw supplies, but the enemy would be brought nearer to the only remaining line of railway communication between Richmond and the South, upon which the whole army, as well as the population of the city, would have to depend mainly for support. It would make the tenure of the city depend upon our ability to hold this long line of communication against the largely superior forces of the enemy, and, I think, would greatly diminish our prospects of successful defense. It is therefore, in my judgment, a matter of the first moment to prevent such a movement on the part of the enemy; and I do not know what emergency can arise in the future defense of the city which will more require all the efforts of the Army and Navy than that which now exists.
I fully appreciate the importance of preserving our fleet and deprecate any unnecessary exposure of it. But you will perceive the magnitude of the service which it is thought you can render, and determine whether it is sufficient to justify the risk. It is true that the enemy might place torpedoes in your rear while the vessels are on guard down the river at night; but if you retire it is much easier for him to place them in the river below you, so as to prevent your going down altogether, no matter how great the necessity for your presence below might become. It is therefore very desirable to guard the river as effectually as we can, and I think it can be done so as greatly to diminish the chance of the enemy laying torpedoes if our ironclads can go down as far as Bishop's every night and picket in their rear with small boats and some of the light gunboats.
Our pickets on the north bank extend about half a mile below the lowest battery, and will be able to afford some assistance, as will also those on the south bank. A system of signals should be agreed upon between them and the fleet to give timely notice of any attempt of the enemy to approach the river or launch boats.
We have not sufficient force to picket the banks more effectually. Our batteries on the south side would also tend to deter the enemy from making the attempt you apprehend, and could afford assistance to the fleet.
You of course can best judge of your ability to render the service required. I can only express my views of its importance, and I trust that if the Department can increase your force of men, or in any other way contribute to render you able to perform this important duty, it will be done. As I said before, I can foresee no state of circumstances in which the fleet can render more important aid in the defense of Richmond than at present by guarding the river below Chaffin's Bluff.
I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
SOURCE: John William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee: Soldier and Man, p. 342-3