January 27, 1865 (Friday)
“I have the honor,” began Lee to the Confederate Secretary of War, “to call your attention to the alarming frequency of desertions from this army.”
It had become an epidemic. Over the course of three days, fifty-six men had deserted A.P. Hill’s Corps alone. Lee had called together his generals and together they tried to figure out why their army was hemorrhaging soldiers. Lee came to the conclusion that “the insufficiency of food and non-payment of the troops have more to do with the dissatisfaction among the troops more than anything else.”
Lack of food most certainly played the biggest role, and other officers agreed. “These desertions are becoming amazingly numerous,” reported Lt. Col. J.H. Duncan of the 16th Mississippi. He submitted that it was “the insufficiency of rations” that caused the men to leave. “Our men do not get enough to eat.” He was certain that “unless something is done soon to remove this evil… the number of desertions will be greatly increased during the winter.”
This was hardly the first time that Lee had been told about this. Since November, brigade and division commanders were noticing the “insufficiency of the bread ration issued to the troops.”
Lee was also correct in assuming that it was the lack of pay. “The fact that there is now six months’ pay due the troops is another serious subject of complain, and should be removed at the earliest practicable moment,” wrote General Joseph Finegan, commanding a brigade in Mahone’s Division, A.P. Hill’s Corps.
Hill himself seemed somewhat oblivious to the suffering. “I believe that the ration is insufficient,” he admitted, “yet nevertheless other troops bear without complaint these evil they know we cannot help.”
That wasn’t exactly true. Troops from every division were making their shadowy egress on a nightly basis. And this was no easy task. As soon as the deserters were spotted leaving the trenches, the other soldiers, who had elected to remain with their army, were ordered to fire upon them. Curiously few were actually hit.
Though Lee would order officers to more closely watch their pickets lest they be held responsible for desertions, he also pleaded with Richmond for more food on behalf of his men.
“The ration is too small for men who have to undergo so much exposure and labor as our,” Lee continued to the Secretary. “I know there are great difficulties in procuring supplies, but I cannot help thinking that with proper energy, intelligence, and experience on the part of the Commissary Department a great deal more could be accomplished. There is enough in the country, I believe, if it was properly sought for.”
While food and pay were the biggest contributors to the problem, there were certainly others that would remain even with full bellies and pockets. “I know that many have a hard trial to stay in the war when they learn that their families are suffering at home,” wrote an Alabaman private in late January. The Army of Northern Virginia was made up of troops from all over the Confederacy. Many of the homes of these troops were now behind Yankee lines. The constant worry and uncertainty was enough to send even the most patriotic back home.
Others were simply tired of the war. They wished for peace at any cost, and it wasn’t difficult to convince them that the only way to achieve it was to simply stop fighting. As the winter marched on and the soldiers saw that the short rations were still somehow keeping them alive, many more would fall upon this reason to leave their army.
In the month of January, Lee’s army had lost 3,000 able-bodied men, mostly to desertions. This would only get worse, as thousands more would leave before the middle of February. This shedding of men would soon change the way that Lee could wage war. No longer was there much of a chance for any kind of battle outside of the defenses. The disparage of numbers had to be made up by fortifications and artillery in the hope of outlasting the ever-increasing Federal hordes before them.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p1143-1146; Lee’s Miserables by J. Tracy Power. [↩]