March 31, 1865: Execution of Private James Preble, 12th New York Cavalry, for the crime of rape

The April 7, 1865 edition of the New York Tribune carried, among other news from Goldsborough, North Carolina, an account of the execution in the Federal camp on March 31, 1865:

A most imposing military execution has just taken place about half a mile in front of the field works, fronting the Provisional Division, and running almost parallel with Little River stream.

The condemned, James Preble, of the 12th New York Cavalry, was executed for a rape committed on an aged woman on the 16th inst., in the vicinity of Kinston.

The whole of the Provisional Division of Schofield’s command was paraded together with the arrangements for the execution, under the command of Col. Claassen of the 132d New York Volunteers.

The division arrived on the ground at precisely one o’clock, and was formed in two ranks in three sides of a square, the rear rank ten paces in rear of the front rank, which came to an about face when the unfortunate condemned one was paraded through the ranks.

At about twenty minutes to three o’clock, the procession which attended the unfortunate man who was soon to be summarily summoned into presence of his Maker, made its appearance at the following order: A detachment of the 132d New York and 17th Mass. Vols., under command of Capt. Keenan, Acting Provost-Marshal, four men carrying a coffin, an ambulance containing the condemned man and his two spiritual advisers, the Rev. H.M. Bacon, Chaplain of the 63d Indiana, and the Rev. Mr. Dodd, Chaplain of the 25th Mass.  Upon arriving on the ground the unfortunate man was taken from the ambulance and escorted in mournful procession with Drum Corps playing the dead march through the ranks forming the three sides of the square.

James Preble did not appear to be more than 20 years of age, and about six feet in height; his appearance in no way gave indication of the brutality which would be naturally supposed to characterize the appearance of one proved to have been guilty of so heinous an offense. He marched with a remarkably steady step all the way round the square, and but seldom raised his eyes from the ground.

In the center of the space in the open side of the square, Preble’s grave was dug, and on arriving at it, after marching around the square, the procession halted, and the proceedings and sentence of his court-martial, together with the order for his execution, was read by the Provost-Marshal, after which he knelt down by his coffin, with the chaplains in attendance, and prayed for about five minutes, when his eyes were bandaged with a white handkerchief, and the firing party, consisting of 12 men from the 132d New York and 17th Pennsylvania, were formed in line about twelve paces in front of him.  At precisely five minutes past three the order to “make ready, aim, and fire,” was delivered in a clear, audible tone by the Acting Provost-Marshal, and the unfortunate man fell down dead, pierced through the breast. He was immediately examined by the Provost-Marshal and the Surgeon in attendance and pronounced dead.  The whole division then marched past the corpse, which was placed on top of the coffin, by columns of companies, and filed back to their quarters.  This will doubtless prove, as it is intended it should, a warning to evil disposed and reckless men, and they well know that acts of barbarity will not be tolerated in an army whose purpose is to restore law and order.

Among all the remarks made by the thousands of men present as spectators of the terrible scene, your correspondent failed to hear a single remark but what approved of the punishment inflicted on Preble.  So jealous are the men composing this army of their reputation, that I actually hear many of them express a desire to be of the firing party.

That last line is worth rolling around.  Major-General William T. Sherman is often figuratively tarred and feathered for his liberal foraging policies.  And certainly those policies opened situations where soldiers could push the limits of convention.  But at the same time, these men did not want to return home in shame for such deeds… particularly given the honor and glory hard won on the battlefield.

Driving Dixie Down: A flooded Yadkin River delays Stoneman’s advance, March 30-April 2, 1865

Allow me to briefly outline the movements of Major-General George Stoneman’s raiders as they moved from Wilkesborough up to the North Carolina-Virginia state line from March 30 to April 2, 1865.  In the last post on this thread, I closed with the capture of Wilkesborough on March 29.  Stoneman’s command moved up to that point in two columns, with Colonel William Palmer moving north of the Yadkin River while Stoneman and the rest of Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem’s division moved south of the river. One of Palmer’s three regiments, the 12th Ohio Cavalry, entered Wlkesborough on the evening of March 29.  The other two regiments remained on the north side opposite the town.  This setup a dangerous position for Stoneman, with a portion of his command isolated from the rest.

March 30 brought rains.  According to observes in Charleston South Carolina, the season’s last Nor’easter ran up the coast.  I don’t know if that storm directly caused the rains which fell on Stoneman, as satellite imagery was a bit slim during those days.  But we might at least say that the precipitation, be that from what ever weather event one might conceive, once again worked to limit Federal operations that spring.


The 12th Ohio rejoined the rest of Palmer’s brigade north of Wilkesborough that morning (depicted on my map by a dashed line).  But the rising waters of the Yadkin prevented the rest of Stoneman’s forces from crossing.  At that moment, Stoneman’s dispositions were terrible.  One brigade isolated from the rest of the command and an unfordable river at his back.  But after spending most of the morning in a foul mood, Stoneman settled comfortably with the knowledge that no organized Confederate force was anywhere close.  So March 30th was spent doing what soldiers often have to do – attempting to stay dry.

On the 31st the river continued impassable,” recorded Gillem.  Stoneman had the command move east, but still waited on the Yadkin to fall.  While waiting, the Federals fanned out on both sides of the river searching for forage, horses, and anything worth plundering.  The trailing brigade, Colonel John Miller, caught up with the main force east of Wilkesborough that day.  Meanwhile on the north side of the river, Palmer reached Roaring Creek to find it also in flood stage.

The waters subsided somewhat on April 1.  Palmer’s brigade moved to the milling community of Elkin and continued their heavy foraging.  Stoneman ordered the main column forward toward Jonesville on the south side of the river.  But the Yadkin remained too swift and deep for a crossing. Not until the next day did the waters fall to a point that a crossing could be effected.

Finally across the Yadkin, Stoneman united his command and made a dash for the Virginia state line on April 2.  His plan was to recross the Blue Ridge near the border and then re-enter the New River Valley to reach his assigned objectives.  The main line of march was from Jonesville, through Dobson, up to Mount Airy.  In addition to that movement, a portion of Palmer’s brigade advanced to Rockford.  This was a feint aimed at causing pause for any Confederates pursuing the column.  Otherwise, all of Stoneman’s horses rode north that day.

As the lead elements of Palmer’s brigade entered Mount Airy that evening, word came of a Confederate wagon train having left the town earlier in the afternoon.  Gillem directed Palmer send a force to catch the Confederates.  “An officer of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry had charge of the pursuing party, and after reaching the top of the Blue Ridge halted until the remainder of the command came up the next morning.”  Thus the vanguard of Stoneman’s force camped that evening in Virginia that evening and on the Blue Ridge.

From a larger context, Stoneman’s movements were having an effect on Confederate dispositions.  In Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, Confederate forces held as  Brigadier-General Davis Tillson’s infantry appeared to threaten that position.


To General P.G.T. Beauregard went the task of forming an opposition to Stoneman.  The first order of business, given reports of Federal activity at Lenoir, was to protect the North Piedmond Railroad which formed the backbone of the Confederate position at that time.  Urgency increased as reports came in regarding Stoneman’s movements from Wilkesborough and the raid into Rockford.  Beauregard pulled together what forces were available to form a series of defenses from Chester, South Carolina up to Danville, Virginia.

Another broad context to consider, thinking of the situation that existed on April 2, 1865, was what happened at Danville and to the east of that point.  Though he didn’t know it, Stoneman was threatening the Confederate retreat from Richmond.  But with his eyes on the Blue Ridge, some 4,000 cavalry troopers, and his orders in hand, Stoneman was not prepared to make any moves against Danville.

But that does not stop historians from pestering us with “what could have been” scenarios.   For what it is worth, Stoneman lost three days’ march distance on the Yadkin.  It is reasonable to say had that river not flooded at that time, Stoneman would have been well into Virginia.  But he would have been near Christiansburg, perhaps threatening Lynchburg, at that time, and not anywhere across the line of retreat from Richmond-Petersburg.  Stoneman was following orders, not seeking opportunities unknown to him at that moment.

Following Stoneman’s Raid by markers, for this leg there are stops at Roaring River, Elkin, Jonesville, Dobson, and Mt. Airy.  In addition, let me direct you to The Stoneman Gazette. On that blog Tom Layton is touching upon the many stories associated with the raid, particularly those of the civilians caught up in the middle.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, page 331.)

March 30, 1865: “There is a profound feeling about Charleston…” Henry Ward Beecher excited about raising the flag at Fort Sumter

On March 30, 1865, abolitionist leader Henry War Beecher and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton exchanged telegrams.  Beecher, as mentioned earlier, was selected as the guest of honor at the ceremony to raise the surrender flag at Fort Sumter, scheduled for April 14.

Beecher sent a pair of telegrams starting around mid-day:

There is a profound feeling about Charleston celebration.  It grows daily. It is a grand national event. Many eminent men desire to see this great occurrence of their lives. Could not a passenger steamer under direction of Collector Draper be allowed to go?

Then later Beecher, having not heard from Stanton, pressed the matter again:

Have received no word.  I am at a loss to know what arrangements to make and for what date. Can I take some of my family? A.A. Low, president of New York Chamber of Commerce, wishes to go with his wife.  He is one of our first citizens, and early and late energetic for Union, with hand, heart, and purse.

Stanton, with a full slate of business in his office, did not respond until well into the evening:

In conference with General Anderson final arrangements for the celebration of Fort Sumter were concluded yesterday.

First. The Steamer Arago will sail with General Anderson and yourself from New York on Friday, the 7th of April.

Second. Your family can accompany you.

Third. Tickets for you and for them will be forwarded by mail to-day.

Fourth. Mr. Low and his wife can accompany you, and tickets for them will be sent with yours.

Fifth. I expect to join you at Fortress Monroe if it be possible to leave here.

Sixth. The arrangements and ceremonies will be directed by General Gillmore.

I will write you more at length.

Interesting the exchange.  Not so much for the details, but the effort evident by the relating of those details.  These two men were living minute by hour by day at a time which you and I read about in the books.  Certainly they expected great things to occur over the weeks following this exchange.  Their focus was on a celebration … a very proper and visible celebration … of victory and achievement.   Had Stanton or Beecher been asked to predict what we’d be anticipating for our sesquicentennial observances between April 7th or April 14th, 2015, they likely would have mentioned the Fort Sumter flag raising.

Between April 7 and 14, 1865, several events would turn, making that week one of the most important in American history.  Events that would overshadow the “grand national event” planned at Fort Sumter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 59.)

“These forts must have their artillery”: Hunt directs battle handover and transition to maneuver operations at Petersburg

150 years ago, the ninth and final offensive was underway at Petersburg.  Brett Schulte has several posts up on Beyond the Crater discussing the details of this operation – including some excellent map resources.  In particular, one of his posts covered the period from March 24 to 28, in which Federal leaders worked out the details of the offensive and began movement.  The movement boiled down to a shift of forces to the left.  Among those units moving to “jump off” positions for this offensive was the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac at that time commanded by Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys.  As the Second Corps moved, elements of the Army of the James would assume positions on the siege lines.  In short, the Second Corps would perform a battle handover to the Army of the James, preparatory to the offensive operations.

What is a battle handover?  According to the book it is a variety of “tactical enabling operation” – meaning an operation designed to facilitate a separate offensive or defensive operation.  In this case a flanking maneuver on the Confederate right.  In order to get the Second Corps in position to participate in the flanking maneuver, Humphreys had to disengage from the line he currently held, keeping the Confederates in place.  Then the Army of the James had to occupy the position formerly held by Second Corps and assume the mission of confronting the Confederate line.

Sounds simple, but battle handovers are notoriously complex. There are many moving parts.   Two soldiers cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  Likewise two regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps cannot hold the same point at the same time.  So part of the “choreography” is to rotate formations, unit by unit, points on the line.  Nowhere is that more difficult than with crew-served weapons… or in the Civil War conventions, the artillery.

In the Petersburg siege lines, the artillery pieces were in place to dominate sections of the trenches.  Each gun tube had a specific field of fire to address a particular tactical need – be that an approach the enemy might use or an enfilade of an enemy position.  Moving a gun would require repeated surveys, sighting, and registration.  Leaving the guns in place could ease the process of battle handover.

That is exactly what Major-General Henry Hunt had in mind on March 28, 1865 when he wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel John Hazard, Second Corps Artillery Chief:

General [Horatio] Wright says you propose to withdraw your guns from Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson to-morrow morning. General Meade says that General Wright will hold the Sixth Corps here to-morrow at least, and these forts must have their artillery. Arrangements must be made accordingly. The forts on your line, A, B, C, D, E, you report March 26 as having twenty guns; General Ord can replace sixteen. You reported Welch, Gregg, and Sampson twelve guns; sixteen are thus required for the lines.

The section of the line in question, Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson, formed a “refuse” on the Federal left flank, and thus were rather important shielding the preparations.  To keep up appearances, and retain the pressure to prevent Confederates from shifting their forces, Hunt wanted the same number of guns in those forts after the battle handover.


On the surface, Hunt is pointing out a mismatch of forces.  The Second Corps plan was to remove thirty-six guns off the line (in the batteries and forts) along with a dozen surplus weapons.  The Army of the James, wold bring in sixteen guns to fill the void.  That math does not work.  So Hunt turned to creative math to resolve the problem… specifically asking Hazard to organize his artillery to support the planned maneuvers and leave the remainder behind:

You report forty-eight guns in your corps, of these I understand that twelve are of surplus sections. If these are all sent back it will take twenty-eight guns from your artillery, leaving you but five batteries, and General Meade directs that rather than strip the forts you take but twenty guns, five batteries, with your corps. I wish you, therefore, to arrange to keep the guns in Forts Sampson, Welch, and Gregg. If you can put two surplus sections in, you will keep your six batteries with the corps. The batteries you propose to Send to Colonel Tidball will therefore be left, four guns with General Ord and twelve with General Wright, which will remain with him until the Sixth Corps line is abandoned, and will then report to General Tidball, unless otherwise ordered. These arrangements must be made at once, and you will report to me what batteries move with your corps, and that provision is made to leave the sixteen guns on the line as directed.

Very creative math.  But what supports this is the transition to a new phase of operations. Sitting in the siege lines, the Second Corps, as had all the Federal formations, had acquired extra guns to meet specific needs on the lines.  Now facing the prospect of quick maneuvers in pursuit of the Confederates, should all turn well, the Second Corps only needed five or six batteries.

Hazard responded promptly on this matter, but with a slight modification to the design:

I have arranged to leave four guns in Fort Gregg: four in Fort Sampson, and four in Battery A, and to take six batteries with me. If General Ord brings with him sixteen guns it will be sufficient to arm the line to the left of Battery A. Shall take two of my guns from Fort Welch, leaving four in it belonging to Sixth Corps. I trust this arrangement will be satisfactory. Shall take with me Battery B, Rhode Island; B, New Jersey; K, Fourth United States; M, First New Hampshire; Tenth Massachusetts, and Eleventh New York, leaving on the line, in command of Capt. C. A. Clark, Twelfth New York, Sixth Maine, and F, First Pennsylvania. Please answer by telegraph as soon as convenient if this arrangement meets with your approbation.

While not exactly as Hunt specified, the arrangement would allow Hazard to retain some organizational integrity within the artillery brigade supporting the Second Corps.  Please note that of those six batteries retained with the Second Corps, only one of them had been under Hazard’s lead during July 1-3, 1863.  Little wonder after the many reorganizations of the Army of the Potomac during the intervening time.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 227-8.)

Driving Dixie Down: Stoneman’s Raid breaks out of the mountains – March 21-29, 1865

I think anyone who has spun the AM radio dial during a long night drive will find Virgil Caine a familiar name:

For many of us growing up in the 1970s, that was largest dosage of Civil War history outside the class room.   (Yes… I know the song was released in 1969.  Do I lose cool points for admitting a fondness for the Joan Baez cover? )

Those of us with a fine appreciation for historical details might quibble over the accuracy of the lyrics.  But such is the way of poets and songwriters, as they ply their craft.  Any rate, in those opening lines, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm laid out the name we need to follow – Major-General George Stoneman.

Stoneman was the quintessential “old cavalryman.”  But he had a lackluster wartime record by the winter of 1865.  Two spectacular failed raids were at the top of his resume.  The assignment to lead a raid out of East Tennessee into North Carolina was for all practical purposes Stoneman’s last opportunity for redemption.  The objective of this raid evolved with time.  Early in the winter, Major-General William T. Sherman simply suggested a diversionary raid into western North Carolina to detract both from Sherman’s planned advance into South Carolina and, at Sherman’s urgings, an infantry advance by Major-General George Thomas into Alabama.  Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant opted to refine that scope somewhat, with an objective of the railroad behind Columbia, South Carolina, to directly contribute to Sherman’s advance.  (And there’s a “what if” to ponder.)

But those plans were overtaken by events.  Stoneman could not get his force organized for movement prior to the middle of March.  Just the logistics of getting troops, horses, and supplies in the right place delayed the start.  Further disrupting the launch, the same rains which pinned Sherman’s march from the Catawba to the Cape Fear Rivers served to likewise hinder Stoneman’s preparations.   By the time Stoneman was ready to start, his objectives were refined to the railroad between Christansburg and Lynchburg, in Virginia, with a threat to Danville.  Such would cut off Richmond from raw materials – particularly salt and other minerals – in Southwest Virginina.  I would submit no other major operation in the Civil War had such swings in objectives before the first movement.  Coming this late in the war, this was as much a raid of “because we can.”

Stoneman’s command for this raid was officially the District of East Tennessee.  The main striking arm was a cavalry division under Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem.

Short version of his biography – Gillem was a East Tennessee unionist with personal connections right up to the Vice-President.  Gillem’s division consisted of three brigades with a supporting battery of artillery:

  • 1st Brigade, Colonel William Palmer, with the 10th Michigan, 12th Ohio, and 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
  • 2nd Brigade, Brigadier-General Simeon Brown, with the 11th Michigan and 11th and 12th Kentucky.
  • 3rd Brigade, Colonel John Miller, with the 8th, 9th, and 13th Tennessee Cavalry.
  • Battery E, 1st Tennessee Light Artillery, Lieutenant James Regan.

All told, Gillem had around 4,000 men.

Backing up Gillem’s cavalry, a column of infantry and artillery under Brigadier-General Davis Tillson would move to secure the passes over the mountains and repair railroads through which the column would be resupplied.  Tillson’s command consisted of two brigades and seven artillery batteries, numbering around 4,500 men.  Of note, Tillson’s command contained the 1st US Colored Heavy Artillery, serving as infantry, and several formations of Tennessee and North Carolina unionists.

Logistics and weather finally permitted the raid to get underway on March 21, aptly as the battle of Bentonville was winding down.  While I don’t have space, nor the grounding, to cover this raid in the detail provided for Sherman’s Marches, I would offer a view of Stoneman’s Raid from a high level so that readers might appreciate the movements within the context of other events 150 years ago.  To wrap up this, the first in a series on the raid, let me cover the first nine days of movement, to bring us up to March 29, 1865.


Oh… big map again… I’ll have that on sale at the gift shop if you’d like…. OK, let me break that into three phases so it is easier to sort out.  And please not these are not precise as to all the roads and camps used by the raiders.


The initial movement out of Knoxville stepped out, as mentioned, on March 21.  The cavalry lead the column, followed by Tillson’s infantry which repaired the railroad as they moved.  The column moved along the Tennessee & Virginia Railroad to Strawberry Plains, Morristown to reach Bull’s Gap in Bays Mountain on March 24.


At Bull’s Gap, Stoneman received word of Confederate forces occupying Jonesborough along his intended line of march.  To counter that force and maneuver them out of place, Stoneman dispatched Miller’s Brigade on a northern course towards the Holston River, with orders to get behind the Confederate position somewhere south of Carter’s Depot. The remainder of Gillem’s force went directly towards Jonesborough.  Tillson’s infantry followed up the railroad line.  The move had the intended effect.  After some light skirmishing, the Confederates fell back in the direction of Bristol, Tennessee.  On March 26, the cavalry columns were beyond Jonesborough near Elizabethton, while Tilson’s infantry camped a day’s march from Greenville on the rail lines.  Tilson would remain in that area for three days before disbursing his forces further east.


Stoneman made a treacherous crossing, with some of his men moving at night, over Stone Mountain to cross into North Carolina on March 27. Hearing of a gathering of North Carolina guards, Stoneman dispatched Major Myles Keogh in command of a detachment from the 12th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry to Boone. Keogh “surprised and routed the rebels, killing 9 and capturing 68” after entering town around 10 a.m. on March 28.

Reporting from Boone that day, Stoneman told Thomas of his success thus far into the raid, but determined to alter his plans.   “I shall be compelled to alter slightly from the proposed route on account of the great scarcity of forage and subsistence for the men.”  Instead of moving up the New River Valley from Boone, Stoneman preferred to move across the Blue Ridge and strike Wilkesborough.  The Yadkin River Valley offered much better grazing for his horses.

Stoneman, who loved to divide his forces for these movements, did so again when leaving Boone in two columns starting mid-day on the 28th.  Brown’s Brigade, with Miller’s following, moved through Watuga Gap, passing Blowing Rock, and down to the headwaters of the Yadkin River.  That force came across Patterson’s Factory at the foot of the mountains.  Before leaving, the Federals destroyed the yarn factory.  This column continued towards Wilkesborough on the south side of the Yadkin on March 29th.

Palmer’s Brigade reached Deep Gap on the evening of the 28th, then crossed over the Blue Ridge. The next morning, Palmer’s three regiments descended upon Wilkesborough on the 29th.  There the 12th Ohio Cavalry overwhelmed a small home guard force to take possession of the town.

Again, I’m working at a “quick” pace through Stoneman’s Raid. There are certainly fine points I’m skipping with an accelerated discussion of events.  Stoneman’s Raid, 1865, by Chris Hartley is among the recent book-length treatments of the subject, and which I’d recommend.  Much of my appreciation for the campaign was gained by running around photographing historical markers.  Speaking of which, North Carolina has several which relate to the events mentioned in this post – Boone, Blowing Rock, Patterson’s Mill, Deep Gap, and Wilkesboro.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, pages 330-1; Part II, Serial 104, page 112.)

End of March 1865 – Lee’s Confederacy, where the war would be decided

General Robert E. Lee spent his first winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia confronting the Federals along the Rappahannock River.  For support, in theory if not in very efficient practice, he could call upon the resources of the Confederacy from as far away as Mississippi, if not beyond to the Rio Grande.

During Lee’s second winter in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he could still call upon support from places as far away as Alabama, Florida, or, even parts of Mississippi.  Responding to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Lee drew troops from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee (where Lieutenant-General James Longstreet had wintered).  Most importantly, Lee could still draw resources from large areas of Virginia, to include much of the Shenandoah Valley.

Just a few weeks into the winter of 1865, Lee was promoted to command of all the Confederate armies.  More than at any other time in the war, Lee needed strategic mobility to concentrate combat power and supplies to meet the needs at the front.  However, given the pace at which Federal operations came in March and April 1865, realistically Lee could only plan to wield resources (manpower, material, or supplies) that were close to railroad depots.  A day or two for rail transportation was cutting things close. Anything more than a few days march or wagon ride from a working (stress working) railroad was out of Lee’s reach, and thus of little help.  Not to diminish the activities that took place in that time period in other theaters, but for Lee’s needs those Confederate forces may as well been in Siberia than Texas or Alabama.

So what did Lee’s reach look like at the end of March?  Here’s my rough depiction:


The rose-colored section is that reach.  You see that just past the South Carolina line, Sherman had destroyed the infrastructure.  Not to say that troops or supplies from South Carolina were inaccessible.  Rather that would be a question of time and effort.  Neither of which the Confederacy had in abundance.  The one remaining transportation artery was a triangle of railroads connecting Richmond-Petersburg with Raleigh and Charlotte, with key junctures at Salisbury, Greensboro, and Danville.  And no seaports.

And the situation was bound to get worse into April.  I’ve depicted one of the next “blows” to fall 150 years ago this week on the left side of the map – Major-General George Stoneman’s raid out of Tennessee, which would disrupt the already teetering transportation system.  Only a matter of days before the major forces started moving on the other side of the map.

As the month of March 1865 came to a close, Lee’s reach, and thus ability to react to those Federal advances, was severely limited.  In more ways than one, Lee’s actions would decide the fate of the Confederacy, determine how the Civil War would close, and, if we step up to the big podium, decide several important questions about the future of the United States as things sat in 1865.  All of that would play out within the rose-colored section labeled “Lee’s Confederacy.”

At the start of the war, the seceded states included over/around 775,000 square miles across eleven states.  For all practical purposes, at the close of March 1865, Lee’s Confederacy was just 40,000 square miles, mostly in two states.

General Lee on desertions: “… the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future.”

On March 27, 1865, General Robert E. Lee sent a report to the Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge.  The report addressed a vital, but always sensitive topic for any army – desertions:

I have the honor to report as the number of desertions from the 9th to the 18th, both inclusive, 1,061. This embraces full reports from the infantry, but only partial reports from the artillery and cavalry, which would increase the number considerably. The largest number of desertions was from the First Corps, General Longstreet’s, Pickett’s division having lost 512 men while moving recently. I hope that some of his men only availed themselves of the opportunity to visit their homes and will return. But the number is very large, and gives rise to painful apprehensions as to the future. I do not know what can be done to put a stop to it. …

1,000 desertions in ten days was a serious loss from the rolls.  At that rate, the Army of Northern Virginia and other forces defending Richmond and Petersburg would simply wither away regardless of any effort by the Federals. Though Lee did explain the high desertion rate noting the preponderance of numbers from one division.  He saw it as aberration. Or perhaps more accurately, he hoped it was an aberration.

The mention of Major-General George Pickett’s division brings to mind the oft used prop that desertions came more so from the ranks of the deep south, which had been most affected by the recent Federal campaigns.  Pickett’s division was all Virginian.

Lee continued with a breakdown of what he saw as contributing causes… and as a good leader will, offer solutions:

General Longstreet reports that many of the Georgia troops have deserted to join local commands authorized to be raised in that State, and that they are encouraged to do so by the officers of those commands. He mentions particularly, on the report of Brig. Gen. G. T. Anderson, the case of a Captain Hardee, formerly of the Ninth Georgia Regiment in Anderson’s brigade, who was retired on account of a wound and received authority to raise a command of light-duty men and persons not liable to conscription, for the purpose of arresting deserters in Brooks County, Ga. I inclose the papers that you may see the whole case. I have always opposed granting such authority, for the reason that it causes desertion from the regular service. I recommend that all such authorizations be revoked and that measures be taken to bring officers who have been guilty of such conduct to justice. It has been one of the greatest evils of the service since the beginning of the war, and has caused the loss of a much greater number of men than have ever been brought into service by means of such special organizations.

The two enclosures mentioned by Lee were reports from Lieutenant-General James Longstreet and Brigadier-General George T. Anderson.  Lee had summarized Longstreet’s observations about recruiting practices in his report.  So I’ll not repeat them here.  Anderson named names in his report:

I believe that some at least of the officers who have received permission to raise companies of disabled men and non-conscripts, are abusing their authority and offering inducements to our soldiers to desert, make their way home, and join their companies. From all the evidence in my possession, I fully believe Capt. T. J. Hardee, formerly of the Ninth Georgia Regiment Infantry, now of Brooks County, Ga. (and retired on account of amputation of leg), has been guilty of the above serious charge. I cannot produce evidence to convict him before a court-martial, but I am perfectly satisfied of his guilt.

Anderson went on to detail letters received by a private in Anderson’s Brigade which demonstrated the efforts to recruit the men from the ranks.

Longstreet’s solution for this matter?  Make this a punishable offense:

I would suggest, therefore, the publication of a general order warning all officers or persons authorized to raise local organizations against receiving such deserters or in anyway harboring them, and cautioning all such parties that they shall be punished for such crimes under the 22d and 23d Articles of War.

Longstreet, however, also touched upon another potential manpower drain:

Another growing evil seems to trouble us now in the shape of applications to raise negro companies, regiments, brigades, &c. The desire for promotion seems to have taken possession of our army, and it seems that nearly all of the officers and men think that they could gain a grade or two or more if allowed to go home. I presume that many may try to go merely because they get furloughs.

By Longstreet’s estimate, the effort to put more men in the ranks – a desperate attempt in this case considering what the Confederacy was founded upon – was going to work out in a counter-productive way.

No where in the correspondence did Lee or any other leader mention the matter of morale.  Some (shall I say jaded?) will interpret that to presume all was well in the ranks and morale remained high.  However, Lee never openly discussed the morale of the army in official correspondence that winter.  Indeed you’ll find most generals, then and now, avoid mention of that topic in written correspondence unless to say morale is in the positive measure.

With the discussion of what motivated the desertions, the least common denominator in all is that desertion is an individual act.  We might draw a lot of inferences by examination and speculation.  But reality is that deserters didn’t fill out a “where did we fail you?” survey as they leave the ranks.  Nor were deserters apt to openly discuss, at length, the reasons they walked away.

Regardless of the motivation, the hard truth is that desertions were rapidly eating away at the strength of the Confederate armies at the close of March 1865.  Maybe not at the 100 per day rate which prompted Lee’s report, but at least in significant numbers to cause alarm.  If the Confederate armies stood still, men deserted.  If the Confederate armies marched, men deserted.  Didn’t matter if the man was killed or wounded in combat, or deserted from the ranks, the loss was still a negative on the returns.  In the larger context, the Confederacy had but one card left in hand to play – its armies.  And the high desertion rates served to reduce the value of that card.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 1353-1355.)