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Hd Qrs Lee’s house1

May 1st 1862


General R. E. Lee


I have ordered the Major Generals to prepare to move to the rear to-morrow. The baggage wagons to go to Williamsburg during the day, & the troops to march to the same point at night.

I write to General Huger to abandon Norfolk2 & transfer his whole force to Richmond, & to order the garrisons of the ports on the James River which are in his dept to Richmond also.

To Capt Lee3 to abandon the navy yard & conduct the personnel of his command to Richmond.

To Flag officer Tatnale [sic],4 to cover the evacuation of Norfolk & the Navy Yard with his command.

To all these officers, to destroy all public property which they may be unable to save to the Confederacy by removal.

To guard against the danger of the miscarriage of my despatches, I beg that these orders may be sent by the government to each of the these officers above mentioned, by a special messenger, & without delay.

Most respectfully

Your obt sevt

J. E. Johnston


I have received your despatch asking the signification of mine in cipher, of yesterday. It was to request you to have the guns removed from Jamestown Island to Richmond. This lower part of the River depends upon the Virginia.5



P.S. After writing what precedes & received the president’s telegram of to-day in cipher, in which he asks if “the safety of the army will allow more time.”

I have replied by telegraph “I determine to retire because we can do nothing here. The volunteers are demoralized by electioneering, & becoming sickly. The enemy will give the opportunity. We must lose, there is no chance to win. By delay we may increase the loss of Richmond too. I have expressed this previously to General Lee.”

The memorandum which I submitted to the president after visiting this place, shows my opinion of it as a position. I beg you to refer him to it.

We can not hold this position. It is best, therefore, to abandon it before suffering by the enemy’s formidable artillery.

J. E. J.


1. Lee Hall, a two-story brick mansion in Newport News. It was built in the 1850s by Stephen Decauter Lee (1821-1896).

2. Norfolk surrendered later that month to Union general John W. Wool.

3. Sidney Smith Lee, brother of Robert E. Lee.

4. Commodore Josiah Tatnall, Jr., a native of Savannah, Georgia, who had a long career in the United States navy.

5. The CSS Virginia, formerly the Merrimac, which had fought a duel at Hampton Roads with the USS Monitor.



Source: Digital copy of original letter, The Papers of Robert E. Lee, 1830-1870, University of Virginia Special Collections, Charlottesville

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 February 16