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.)

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

  1. Perhaps USG should have waited a month or so. Then Lee would have been by himself when he surrendered!

  2. Grant attacked because he was afraid Lee would slip out of Petersburg and Richmond as his situation got increasingly desperate.

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