Faced with Desertions, Lee Tries to Boost Morale

February 28, 1863 (Saturday)

General Robert E. Lee and his men were slowly coming out of the bitter winter. Following their victory at Fredericksburg, there was little to do but wait out the snow and the cold. Conditions deteriorated and desertions increased.

General Lee

Unlike in the West, where all deserters were given amnesty, General Lee, and his remaining corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, leveled harsh sentences in hopes of keeping the men in line and setting examples.

When six deserters were captured, one was sentenced to six months hard labor, two were flogged and three, who had belonged to the Stonewall Brigade, were ordered put to death. Jackson dealt out the sentence and Lee signed off on it. It was only President Davis who saved their lives.

Another such case came before Jackson. Again, a deserter from the Stonewall Brigade was caught, and again Jackson dealt out the harsh penalty. This time (and on this date), Davis did not commute the sentence.

According to Jackson’s topographer and friend, Jedediah Hotchkiss, the soldier “wept bitterly, wishing to see his family.” The man fell dead, pierced by five bullets. [For more on this execution, see here.]

While Jackson was busy killing his own men, Lee decided it was time to raise the morale a bit. On this date, the same day as the poor fellow met his Maker, Lee issued General Orders No. 29, which detailed the exploits of the Confederate Cavalry throughout the winter.

Though the infantry did little, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was all over the place, making the Yankees look like fools. This was just what was needed to keep up the spirits of his men.

Lee began in December, expounding the exploits of Grumble Jones and John Mosby, the Blackhorse Cavalry and Hampton’s Brigade. These were famous, almost mythical figures. No deed was too small for Lee’s notice. He made mention of a Sgt. Sparks, ” who, a few days before, with 2 of his comrades, attacked in Brentsville 6 of the enemy sent to take him, killed 3, and captured the rest.”

Fitz Lee

He wrote of Imboden’s Cavalry, who, “with 23 men, attacked near Romney a supply train of 27 wagons, guarded by about 150 cavalry and infantry, routed the guard, captured 72 prisoners, 106 horses, with equipments.” And he didn’t fail to mention that this was the third such time they had done something like this.

Going on, he told how his nephew, Fitz Lee, with 400 troopers, “reconnoitered the enemy’s lines to within a few miles of Falmouth, broke through his outposts, fell upon his camps, killed and wounded many, took 150 prisoners, including 5 commissioned and 10 non-commissioned officers, and recrossed the river with the loss of but 14 killed, wounded, and missing.”

And just two days ago, Grumble Jones “with a small force, attacked two regiments of cavalry belonging to Milroy’s command, in the Shenandoah Valley, routed them, and took 200 prisoners, with horses, arms, &c, with the loss on his part of 2 killed and 2 wounded.”

This was the type of stuff that made legends, bolstered morale, and gave the men reason to keep fighting.

And a reason to keep fighting was important, because things weren’t going quite as well as the cavalrymen made them seem. On paper, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia consisted of 114,000. But in reality, 40,000 were absent. Some where on furlough, while others were simply missing. Adding to it, two divisions under James Longstreet (as well as Longstreet himself) were detached. This sapped Lee’s numbers by roughly 28,000 men. When it came down to it, Lee’s effective strength was 58,000 troops. This was little compared to the 126,000 commanded by Union General Joe Hooker just across the Rappahannock.

Lee took a slightly different tone with Richmond than he took with his men. Though he told of the Cavalry’s advances, he also expressed some of his concerns.

Confederate deserter finds his way into Federal lines.

For some time now, Lee had noticed that a large body of Federal troops were leaving the Fredericksburg area and appearing at Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. This was why he detached two of Longstreet’s Divisions. Though it was only the Federal IX Corps that was detached from the Army of the Potomac, Lee’s scouts figured it to be three whole corps, numbering upwards of 25,000.

Lee feared that Hooker’s army before him had received large amounts of reinforcements and was about to receive more once the Federal Conscription Act, which had been approved by Congress and awaited only Abraham Lincoln’s signature (which it would certainly receive in the next few days) to become law.

In conclusion, Lee asserted that “it will require ever exertion on our part to keep the field.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p112, 646-647, 649, 650; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
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Faced with Desertions, Lee Tries to Boost Morale by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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