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.)