Lee Complains of Desertions and Prepares to Evacuate Richmond

February 24, 1865 (Friday)

Corrispondance, as was so often the case between two parties, cross in the sending. Such was the case with Confederate Secretary of War John Breckinridge and General Robert E. Lee. Breckinridge started by asking Lee plainly if preparations should be made to evacuate Richmond. Lee had spoken openly about the possible necessity for weeks now. With the spring campaign season stirring, it couldn’t hurt to ask.

Confederate deserters crossing Union lines.
Confederate deserters crossing Union lines.

Before Lee received Breckinridge’s question, he wrote to the Secretary with an equally pressing issue: desertion.

“I regret to be obliged to call your attention to the alarming number of desertions that are now occuring in the army. Since the 12th instant they amount in two divisions of Hill’s corps, those of Wilcox and Heth, to about 400. There are a good many from otehr commands. The desertions are chiefly from the North Carolina regiments, and especially those from the western part of that State.

“It seems that the men are influenced very much by the representations of their friends at home, who appear to have become very despondent as to our success. They think the cause desperate and write to the soldiers, advising them to take care of themselves, assuring them that if they will return home the bands of deserters so far outnumber the home guards that they will be in no danger of arrest.

“I do not know what can be done to prevent this evil, unless some change can be wrought in the state of public sentiment by the influence of prominent citizens of the State. The deserters generally take their arms with them. I shall do all in my power to remedy the evil by a stern enforcement of the law, but that alone will not suffice. […] These desertions have a very bad effect upon the troops who remain and give rise to painful apprehension.”

As to Breckinridge’s orignal question about evacuating Richmond, Lee apparently told him that it was something to seriously consider. The day following, Breckinridge issued orders for the removal of stores, and wanted to know “whether we may probably count on a period of ten or twelve days.” He was hoping for more time so that “better order and system can be carried out.”

Lee also issued orders (on this day – the 24th) to General Ewell, stating that “the emegency specification has arisen.” This meant that “all cotton and tobacco which the owners cannot remove must be destroyed.” Ewell visited the store houses and concluded that much of it could be burned at the last minute, while the rest would need to be gathered – an exercise that would take several days. This was not the beginning of the evacuation, then, but a preparation to the beginning.

But Lee would remain focused upon desertions. “Hundreds of men are deserting nightly,” he wrote on the 25th concerning the execution of a captured deserter, “and I cannot keep the army together unless examples are made of such cases.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p1254, 1260-1261. []


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