"Lee's Search for the Battle of Annihilation", Peter Carmichael in Audacity Personified: The Generalship of Robert E. Lee, Peter Carmichael, ed., LSU Press, 2004, pp.1-26.
By the fall of 1863 did Robert E. Lee's expectations far exceed what the Army of Northern Virginia could realistically accomplish? Much has been made of Lee's spring 1863 remark that the ANV was unbeatable. Did Lee continue to believe that the ANV could annihilate the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg? Carmichael describes how Lee did believe just that. Lee looked for a decisive victory from Early in the summer of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley. Carmichael believes that Early's army best served Lee by forcing Grant to send troops away from Petersburg to protect Washington. Lee failed to appreciate that defensive victories could both dishearten the North during the autumn elections and sustain Southern morale. The fall of Atlanta, the march to Savannah and the battles of Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek led to Lincoln's presidential victory.
Discussing the works of Douglas Southall Freeman, Thomas Connelly, Allan Nolan, Michael Fellman and Emory Thomas, Carmichael covers the changing interpretations of Lee's audacity during the war. Carmichael cites Lee's July 1864 remarks, "if we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace. All our efforts and energies should be devoted to that object, to illustrate Lee's continuing quest for a battle of annihilation. By ordering the assaults at The Wilderness, Harris Farm, North Anna, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor, Weldon Railroad, and Fort Harrison Robert E. Lee engages in questionable tactics Carmichael feels. With these assaults and the 1864 Valley Campaign the ANV sustained battlefield losses at a time when Confederate numbers should have been conserved Carmichael concludes. Lee does deserve credit for making the effort in 1864 but the offensive forays drained the lifeblood out of an already anemic Confederacy.
"A defensive operations strategy afforded the best chance to ruin Lincoln's reelection bide with protecting Southern manpower," Carmichael summarizes (p. 26). The goal was to break the North's will to fight and defensive tactics as long could have accomplished this goal. In 1864 Confederate defeat was non inevitable and as Gary Gallagher has pointed out, Carmichael notes, the Southern people still had the will to outlast the enemy if the armies could be preserved.
Image Source: Lee Cart d'viste 1864