The Last Stand of the Confederacy: President Jefferson Davis, Urging the Confederate Congress to Recruit Slaves as Soldiers, Sends the Senate a Supporting Letter From General Robert E. Lee

On March 13, 1865, Davis also requests more troops and more supplies

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That very day Congress approved recruiting slaves, but coming up with more men and supplies was another matter

 

With the enemy closing in, his final message to Congress would be just four days later

On March 13, 1865, the Confederate House and Senate received a message from President Jefferson Davis. It...

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The Last Stand of the Confederacy: President Jefferson Davis, Urging the Confederate Congress to Recruit Slaves as Soldiers, Sends the Senate a Supporting Letter From General Robert E. Lee

On March 13, 1865, Davis also requests more troops and more supplies

That very day Congress approved recruiting slaves, but coming up with more men and supplies was another matter

 

With the enemy closing in, his final message to Congress would be just four days later

On March 13, 1865, the Confederate House and Senate received a message from President Jefferson Davis. It was in a dire moment for the faltering Confederacy. On March 4, Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as President of the United States for a second term. He would never agree to acknowledge Southern independence. The day before that, the U.S. Congress created a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, a sure sign that it expected all slaves to be free. On March 11, Sherman captured Fayetteville, North Carolina, getting ever closer to Virginia. Union forces controlled the port of Wilmington, therefore supplying Sherman’s large army was relatively easy. Meanwhile, Grant prepared the Army of the Potomac for what he rightly assumed would be the last offensive against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant had an army of 125,000 men while Lee could muster a total of 50,000 men.

Davis’s lengthy message of the 13th stated in part: “…the state of the country had been so materially affected by the events of the last four months as to evince the necessity of further and more energetic legislation…Our country is now environed with perils which it is our duty calmly to contemplate. Thus alone can the measures necessary to avert threatened calamities be wisely devised and efficiently enforced. Recent military operations of the enemy have been successful in the capture of some of our seaports, in interrupting some of our lines of communication, and in devastating large districts of our country. These events have had the natural effect of encouraging our foes and dispiriting many of our people. The Capital of the Confederate States is now threatened, and is in greater danger than it has heretofore been during the war…While stating to you that our country is in danger, I desire also to state my deliberate conviction that it is within our power to avert the calamities which menace us, and to secure the triumph of the sacred cause for which so much sacrifice has been made, so much suffering endured, so many precious lives been lost. This result is to be obtained by fortitude, by courage, by constancy in enduring the sacrifices still needed; in a word, by the prompt and resolute devotion of the whole resources of men and money in the Confederacy to the achievement of our liberties and independence…

“We need, for carrying on the war successfully, men and supplies for the Army. We have both within our country sufficient to obtain success. To obtain the supplies, it is necessary to protect productive districts and guard our lines of communication by an increase in the number of our forces; and hence it results that, with a large augmentation in the number of men in the Army, the facility of supplying the troops would be greater than with our present reduced strength. For the purchase of the supplies now required, especially for the armies in Virginia and North Carolina, the Treasury must be provided with means, and a modification in the impressment law is required…The impressment law as it now exists prohibits the public officers from impressing supplies without making payment of the valuation at the time of impressment…It is necessary that this restriction on the power of impressment be removed…There will be no hesitation in so changing the law as to render it possible to supply the Army in case of necessity for the impressment of provisions for that purpose…

“The measures passed by Congress during the session for recruiting the Army and supplying the additional force needed for the public defense have been, in my judgment, insufficient; and I am impelled by a profound conviction of duty, and stimulated by a sense of the perils which surround our country, to urge upon you additional legislation on this subject…Thus united in a common and holy cause, rising above all selfish considerations, rendering all our means and faculties tributary to the country’s welfare, let us bow submissively to the Divine will and reverently invoke the blessing of our Heavenly Father, that, as he protected and guided our sires when struggling in a similar cause, so he will enable us to guard safely our altars and our firesides and maintain inviolate the political rights which we inherited.” Davis wanted more than supplies and white soldiers: he also suggested that the Confederacy allow the induction of black soldiers, clearly a desperation measure.

Later that day Davis received a letter from his Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge, providing Robert E. Lee’s view of the military situation and stressing the urgent need for action. Lee had come to feel that recruiting black soldiers was “not only expedient but necessary.” Davis also this letter from Lee, plus sent newly arrived information from the Quartermaster General and Commissary General, relative to supplying troops. Davis thought it likely that this new information might spur faster action, and later in the afternoon on the 13th supplemented his statement with it.

Letter signed, Richmond, March 13, 1865, addressed “To the Senate of the Confederate States”. “Herewith I transmit a letter from the Secretary of War, covering several communications from officers of the Army in reference to the present condition of the country as connected with military defense, and especially with the matter of supplies for the Army. They will serve to elucidate the message this day transmitted to you. The last in the order of time of those communications was received after my message was transmitted, and refers to a contingency which, if it should occur, must seriously affect the opinions which I then expressed. I invite your special attention to the papers submitted.” On the verso the letter is docketed: “Mess. Pres. transmitting certain communications from the Secretary of War and officers in the army in reference to the military defense of the country and providing supplies for the army. Secret. March 14, 1865. Read and laid upon the table.” Davis did not specify what information, amidst the bad news cascading in, would seriously affect his opinions.

Congress voted that very day to recruit slaves. But they did not offer freedom in exchange, which was hardly an inducement.

Despite Davis’s optimism, the string was about up. The last recorded correspondence between Davis and the Senate was a few days after this message, on March 17, 1865. In weeks, Union forces would take Richmond, and Lee’s surrender was less than a month away.

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