All Lee wanted was “an equal distribution of conscripts from South Carolina”

On December 19, 1864, General Robert E. Lee took the time to relate a growing concern of his regarding the fulfillment of the Army of Northern Virginia’s ranks.  To President Jefferson Davis, he wrote:

Mr. President: I beg leave to bring your attention again to the abuse of the right of volunteering by conscripts, and its effects upon the armies in the field.

In this connection I have the honor to submit a letter from Colonel Preston, while commandant of the camp of instruction at Columbia, which he sent me in reply to a letter from me on this subject, written recently. It will show Your Excellency the difficulties that have attended an equal distribution of conscripts from the State of South Carolina among the various regiments in different armies. The evil still exists, and unless some change is made in the law or its execution there is little chance of recruiting the reduced regiments from that State, which are with the armies most actively engaged.

The evil complained of is greater in South Carolina than in any other State, though it exists to some extent in all. The South Carolina regiments in this army are much reduced by hard service, and it has been found impossible to recruit them, principally, if not entirely, on account of the encouragement given to men to volunteer in regiments engaged in the defense of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and the measures adopted in that department to retain conscripts.

As showing the effect of this system upon the regiments engaged in local defense, many of which have seen no active service, or very little, I call your attention to the strength of the following cavalry regiments now in the State of South Carolina, as represented by General Hampton: Third Regiment (Colcock’s), about 1,100 men,; Fourth (Rutledge’s), 1,350; Fifth (Dunovant’s), 1,200; Sixth (Aiken’s), 1,000. There are other organizations quite as full.
It is a matter of great moment that the recruits for this army should reach it in full time for the coming campaign, and whatever is to be done to bring them out should be done without delay. As I understand the law, the right to volunteer ceases after enrollment, and I respectfully suggest that it be vigorously enforced, and that no more enrolled men be assigned to the regiments in the department, but that they be equally distributed among those in the armies of Virginia and Tennessee.

If the Department of War has not the power to prevent this practice, I think Congress should at once confer it, as otherwise the service will suffer much. If nothing else can be done, I recommend that some of the full regiments in the Department of South Carolina, &c., be ordered to the field, and the reduced regiments sent to Charleston to recruit. This would at least restrain the disposition to volunteer in the former regiments. It is not the least evil that results from the encouragement given to men to enter organizations intended for local service that they acquire the idea that they have a right to remain in such service and desert when ordered to other points. I have already mentioned to Your Excellency the cases of the commands from Western Virginia when ordered to this army last summer, as illustrating this fact, and if the reports with reference to the conduct of some of the troops sent from Charleston to Vicksburg last summer be true, it would appear that the same cause has produced a like effect among them.

With great respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE, General.

As one might guess, General P.G.T. Beauregard would offer a contrary opinion on some points raised by Lee.

I like this particular Winter ’64 thread as it crosses between Virginia and South Carolina.  For all fairness, let me next offer the “source” document which Lee references – a letter from Colonel John S. Preston.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1097-8.)


150 years ago: Lee cuts rations, offers motivational message

On this day (January 22) in 1864, General Robert E. Lee issued an order directing a reduction of daily rations issued for the Army of Northern Virginia.  To balance that, in terms of morale, he urged the soldiers to accept the hardships and press on:

General Orders No. 7.
Hdqrs. Army of Northern Virginia.,
January 22, 1864.
The commanding general considers it due to the army to state that the temporary reduction of rations has been caused by circumstances beyond the control of those charged with its support. Its welfare and comfort are the objects of his constant and earnest solicitude, and no effort has been spared to provide for its wants. It is hoped that the exertions now being made will render the necessity of short duration, but the history of the army has shown that the country can require no sacrifice too great for its patriotic devotion.

Soldiers! You tread with no unequal step the road by which your fathers marched through suffering, privations, and blood to independence. Continue to emulate in the future, as you have in the past, their valor in arms, their patient endurance of hardships, their high resolve to be free, which no trial could shake, no bribe seduce, no danger appall, and be assured that the just God who crowned their efforts with success will, in His own good time, send down His blessing upon yours.
R. E. Lee,

(I would offer comparison to Lee’s order presented here to that of Brigadier-General John Logan almost a year earlier, as he prepared his soldiers for the campaigns along the Mississippi during 1863.  The situations were not, of course, equivalent.  But both drew upon some similar themes to inspire the soldiers. Logan, of course, was a politician by trade and thus allowed himself a longer message.)

On the same day, Lee wrote to Secretary of War James Seddon in regard to the situation:

Desertions to the enemy are becoming more frequent, and the men cannot continue healthy and vigorous if confined to this spare diet for any length of time. Unless there is a change, I fear the army cannot be kept effective, and probably cannot be kept together. I am granting furloughs at the rate of sixteen for each company of 100 men, and eight for every company of 50 men, and other companies in proportion. This alleviates the matter to some extent, but these furloughs cannot be continued with safety longer than the opening of spring, nor increased without embarrassing the railroads in the country. It is absolutely necessary that the army should be properly fed. The present distribution of the supplies purchased by the Commissary Department does not effect the object.

The situation was such that Lee went on to suggest rescinding the regulations authorizing officer to purchase sustenance for their families from army depots.   To his point, Lee complained that “many thousand rations are consumed” from the depots in this way.  As this practice was exercised where army depots existed, it largely applied to officers assigned to duties away from the front.  “They should make the same arrangements to provide for their families which their comrades in the field are compelled to make, with less opportunity,” Lee concluded.

Sedden passed Lee’s request on to Commissary General Lucius B. Northrop.  The commissary countered that Lee’s assessment of the family support was exaggerated.  “At present rate of mere breadstuffs, flour, and meal, in the cities mentioned by General Lee, an officer’s pay will not purchase much….” That response, while addressing Lee’s complaint to a small degree, also offered a window as to how bad the Confederate economy had become.

Was it the case the South was unable to feed an army by the winter of 1864?  Perhaps the agrarian region’s meager infrastructure was unable to support a “steam-age” era war?  The Federal blockade which strangled the Confederate economy?  Or something else?

At the close of his response, Northrop mentioned “The virtual nullification of the impressment law by the action of States, corporations, and courts, and the directions of the Secretary of War to purchase on the best terms possible…”  as a factor bearing on the problem.   More “died of a theory,” perhaps?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1114-7.)