Meade and Grant’s Cash-for-Guns Program a Hit with Deserting Confederates!

March 22, 1865 (Wednesday)

Federal signal station at Petersburg.
Federal signal station at Petersburg.

For some time now, a curious policy had been in place – paying the Rebel deserters for their arms. Meade had noticed in February that most who defected the Southern army did not throw down their muskets, but brought them over. “Can they be compensated for them,” asked Meade of Grant on February 21st.

“My order does not contemplate payment for arms brought in by deserters,” came his timely reply. “I do not know, however, but it would be good policy to amend the order so as to make it an inducement for them to bring their arms with them.”

A week and a half later, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton agreed: “There is no objection to your paying rebel deserters for their arms, horses, or anything they bring in, a full a fair price. That kind of trade will not injure the service.”

Meade wished for the price to be fixed, because at this point, word had reached the Rebel lines that if they deserted with their arms, they would be compensated when reaching Union lines. The Ordnance Department had no money, so Meade and Grant turned to the provost-marshal, who would pay for them “at the lowest Government contract prices.”

General Edward Ord, commanding the nearby Army of the James, had been a huge proponent of this idea, describing just how it was advertised: “On the Bermuda [Hundred] front the order promising pay for arms and horses has been circulated with kites, bows and arrows, and newspapers.”

John Gibbon, commanding the Twenty-Fourth Corps, thought it splendid, and asked Ord to “send me more of General Grant’s orders and a man who understands your mode of fixing them to a kite.”

Lee soon discovered this, complaining that “the deserters generally take their arms with them,” and vowed to do “all in my power to remedy the evil.”

At some point, the Ordnance Department became responsible for the payments, and this seemed to break down. “Will you please direct the Ordnance Department to send money here at once to pay for arms brought in by deserters,” wrote Grant to Stanton on March 19th. “A great many are coming in now, brining their arms with them.” Stanton immediately replied by sending an extra $10,000.

For some reason or another, it wasn’t until this date that a set figure of $8 per arm was settled upon. Why it took this long for the Ordnance Department to arrive at such a figure is unclear, but F.H. Parker, Chief Ordnance Officer, ordered on this date:

“It is arranged that you are to pay for arms brought in by deserters. They will be forwarded with their arms or with receipts from the provost-marshal here. Pay them at the rate of $8 per arm….”

In the meanwhile, General Grant had but one anxiety – to prevent Lee’s escape from Richmond. He knew that the Army of Northern Virginia could soon be crushed by a movement in concert, but also understood that it was not yet time. The roads to the west of Richmond – the only avenue left open to Lee – were still impassible due to the winter rains. They would soon dry, but until then, he had to keep Lee in place.

Another point was Philip Sheridan, who had run the Shenandoah Valley through, destroying Jubal Early’s small army. Grant wished for Sheridan to join him before Petersburg, and only then would they strike Lee.

Map showing Sheridan's route from Charlottesville to White House.
Map showing Sheridan’s route from Charlottesville to White House.

Following the victory of Early, Sheridan did not tarry long, and by the 18th of March, he was at White House. His band had marched from far west of Richmond, falling upon the Virgina Central Railroad. When the Confederate responded, by dodged north, crossing the North Anna River, and moving around Richmond itself to come more or less within Grant’s lines.

“The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry,” wrote Sheridan after the war. “Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy’s means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.”

Sheridan would soon be moved in front of Petersburg, so that Grant could begin his next phase of operations. With Sheridan’s slip back into Union lines, it was becoming increasingly clear to the Confederates that Grant would soon be stirring.

“General Custis Lee reports enemy’s white pickets relieved at 5:30pm; usually relieved at 9am,” read a message from James Longstreet to Lee. “Negro vedette line doubled. Such action has heretofore preceded some movement of the enemy.”

Meanwhile, General Meade was busy counting the scores of Rebel deserters abandoning their post. In doing so, he also took notice of Longstreet’s apprehension. “Twenty-two deserters yesterday; twenty are reported this morning,” began his message to Grant. “The whole Confederate army appear to have had two days’ cooked rations and told to be on the alert; I think due more to an expected attack from us than any projected movement on their part.” Soon after, Meade counted twenty-two more.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p599, 610, 801, 803-804, 1254; Part 3, p38, 42, 43, 50, 74-75; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan. []


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