“The privilege has not been an abuse”: Beauregard responds to conscription criticism

In January, I discussed a request from General Robert E. Lee in regard to the distribution of conscripts during the winter of 1864 – particularly that those be equitably distributed to replenish losses in the foremost field armies.  Colonel John S. Preston, Superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription, added to this request with his complaint about practices and abuses in South Carolina and Georgia.  There was some justification to Preston’s complaint.  A report from Major John M. Otey, Assistant Adjutant-General for General P.G.T. Beauregard, dated January 23, 1864 included this table showing the aggregate present and absent strength of Georgia regiments:

A couple of those infantry regiments might rebuild a brigade in Virginia.  Although some of these units had seen action outside Charleston during the previous summer, the casualties were relatively light compared to … say… Gettysburg or Chickamauga.  And at the same time, as Preston indicated, these regiments benefited favorably from the volunteer system, as they remained close to home.

But to some extent Beauregard could claim some justification with these big regiments.  Throughout the summer and fall of 1863, he pressed for reinforcements.  Although some arrived, the expanse of the department with threats all along the coast called for more.  In the absence of reinforcements from other theaters, Beauregard benefited from emergency calls by the states for reserve regiments with limited service terms.

Now the carry over was criticism from Virginia.  Coincidentally or not, on the same day of fighting at Olustee, Beauregard’s headquarters issued General Orders No. 25.  Then on the next day, February 21, he responded to the inquiries from Richmond:

An order herewith, marked A, will show to what extent I have taken steps to give effect to the views of His Excellency, but it is proper to add that I had contemplated and given instructions looking to such an order some time since, and that such an order would have been issued previously but for the constant movement of troops in this department for months past. I feel satisfied the order will work satisfactorily, and trust will have the full approval of the War Department.

I cannot return these papers, however, without some remarks, in justice to myself and the officers of my command, in connection with the communications of Colonel Preston, both of the 9th April, 1863, and 15th January, 1864.

With that, Beauregard proceeded to debunk claims made by Preston over the span of several pages.   These were, if I may, secondary points of order to the larger issue.  “Exhibit A,” as he labeled it, was General Orders No. 25.  As he was apt to do in such exchanges, Beauregard saved his best ammunition for the end:

Colonel Preston, it will be observed, regarded the State as drained of all conscripts between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, and yet it is believed that a number of that class of men are included among those who have joined companies in this department as volunteers; doubtless in many instances because they feared conscription, but who had previously been able to elude enrollment. The extension of the act and orders regulating conscription, to include all between thirty-five and forty years of age, gave the regiments and companies in this State material accessions of volunteers at once, in January and February, 1863, but ever since that time there has been volunteering to a considerable extent, apparently, of men under circumstances which induced me to believe that the privilege has not been an abuse, but that in that way there have been drawn into the Army men who otherwise would have escaped conscription to an indefinite time. The troops were wanted here, and there have never been more men in the department than were actually needed.

In regard to the reserve regiments, at around the same time Lee raised concerned, Beauregard sought authority to directly enroll those men.  Attached as “exhibit B” was a January 21 letter to General Samuel Cooper in Richmond:

In three weeks the time of service of the South Carolina reserve regiments will have expired and a material reduction of my forces will take place. Unless otherwise directed, I shall construe the circular from your office, of the 8th instant, to authorize me to send officers to these regiments before the expiration of their time of service, to enroll all persons subject to conscription, as there must be material loss of time if those troops must pass through the camp of instruction at Columbia before I can again have their services.

This did, of course, provide a source of conscripts, though not in overwhelming numbers.

Beauregard’s General Orders No. 25 were straight forward.  The “meat” of it, in paragraph I, capped the number of men authorized per unit:

I. Companies of artillery, cavalry, and infantry in this department will at once be reduced to the maximum number allowed by law, to wit:

1. For a company of cavalry, 5 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 farrier, 1 blacksmith, 2 musicians, and 80 privates.

2. For a company of heavy artillery or infantry, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 2 musicians, and 125 privates.

3. For a light battery of 6 guns, 1 sergeant-major or first sergeant, 1 quartermaster-sergeant, 6 sergeants, 12 corporals, 1 guidon, 2 artificers, 2 buglers, and 125 privates.

4. For a light battery of 4 guns, 1 sergeant-major or first sergeant, 1 quartermaster-sergeant, 4 sergeants, 8 corporals, 2 buglers, 1 guidon, 2 artificers, and 125 privates.

The rest of that lengthy order provided for allowances for absences, system for cross-leveling, a board of officers to oversee the process, and a thirty-day deadline for commanders to comply.  Arguably Beauregard had addressed the abuses cited.  However, in April Preston was only able to report an addition of 698 men to the army from South Carolina (compared to 495 in December, 929 in January, and 878 in February).

But the broader issue remained.  The Confederacy lacked manpower.  In his April 30 report, Preston stated (excluding North Carolina submitting incomplete returns and no figures from the Trans-Mississippi):

From the reports now in this Bureau, it appears that for the months of December, January, February, and March, 7,513 conscripts were assigned to the Army, 2,325 volunteers were assigned to the Army, 8,306 deserters were returned to the Army–18,144 increase to the Army….

Upon the same reports, exclusive of North Carolina, there are 20,435 conscripts exempted by law and orders, 5,847 conscripts exempted by boards of examination.

The Army of Northern Virgina would report over 33,000 casualties in the Overland Campaign. Such figures lend credence to the “has not army enough” line.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 542 and 623-9; Series IV, Volume 3, Serial 129, page 364.  Also see: Moore, Albert Burton. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1996.)


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