“The privilege of volunteering has been and is greatly abused” in South Carolina

Yesterday I posted General Robert E. Lee’s complaint that South Carolina was not supplying his Army of Northern Virginia with the necessary conscripts to keep regiments from that state in the field.  In his letter to President Jefferson Davis, Lee referenced a letter sent to him by Colonel John S. Preston, Superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription.  Though Lee did not provide specifics as to the date of that letter, I feel it most likely a copy of Preston’s letter was the among the list of inclosures forwarded with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s response on this matter.  If so, Preston sent that letter to Lee on January 15:

Bureau of Conscription, C. S. A.,
Richmond, Va., January 15, 1864.
General R. E. Lee,
General: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 13th January. I am using every possible exertion to enforce conscription. I fully appreciate the necessity of adding every attainable man to the army. My material for executing the law is not such as I would select for efficient service. I endeavor to supply the defects by unremitted effort to enlighten, inspirit, and direct my officers. There are many grave impediments which I cannot overcome and which the law has failed to remove. State, executive, and judicial authority, popular disaffection, incomplete and indefinite classification, the want of authority for efficient organization, incompetent officers, all combine to render the service less productive than could be desired. In some of the States I have recently found a condition of chaotic confusion which renders the law utterly valueless for the supply of men to the army. I trust Congress will at an early day do something to remedy such evils as are within reach of law, and remove such impediments as prevent the due administration of the law. If this is done I think I can promise for the field, in time for the next campaign, every man the law provides for being sent there.

The privilege of volunteering has been and is greatly abused, especially in the State of South Carolina. For more than a year I have endeavored, without remission, to prevent this abuse and to remedy it. My protests, both as commandant and superintendent, have amounted almost to insolence to my superiors. I could send you a dozen documents in proof of my resistance to the injustice. I beg you to read the one I send, dated in April last, and referring to others of anterior date. I have continued making the like representations up to this time. You were present when I earnestly pressed the matter on the President. I venture to suggest that you would do much for the public service and for impartial justice if you could procure an order that no conscript should be assigned to, and no volunteer admitted into, a regiment which was in service in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida on the 1st day of June, 1863.

In a few days I will have the honor to communicate to you whether it will be needful for me to accept your offer to send me officers to “aid the enrolling officers in the different States.”

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
Jno. S. Preston,
Colonel and Superintendent.

The passage with (my) emphasis added has clear implications for Beauregard’s command.  So keep in mind some of the context here.  Beauregard pressured Richmond for more troops back in the winter of 1863, anticipating an offensive against Charleston.  That threat subsided somewhat after the Ironclad Attack in April of that year.  But when the Federals opened the Morris Island campaign in July, the Department again needed reinforcement.  But losses that summer from Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and further factoring the resources committed to defend Northern Georgia, limited what could be allocated to Charleston.

But that sentence in bold is part of a trend.  Preston himself referred to earlier correspondence on this matter.  On April 9, 1863 he wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel G.W. Lay, Assistant Adjutant General of the Bureau of Conscription, about the conscription practices in South Carolina.  Closing that letter, he stated:

I respectfully suggest that I be ordered not to assign one conscript to a regiment which was serving in South Carolina on the 5th day of February, 1863, and to make pro-rata distribution to those serving in Virginia and Tennessee, and that the officers commanding these latter regiments be required to furnish me forthwith a statement of their actual condition, which, although repeatedly solicited, has not been done.

Preston was, as you may recall, a South Carolinian at the onset of the war.  He had served on Beauregard’s staff early in the war.  But by birth, he was a Virginian.  His South Carolina connections came by way of marriage into the Hampton family.

Given this background, one can see why Beauregard would snap in response.  While his formal, and lengthy, response would come in February, its worth looking to some conscription policies and practices as applied in Beauregard’s District.  That is due up next in this set.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 626-7.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on ““The privilege of volunteering has been and is greatly abused” in South Carolina

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