Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,
September 17, 1864
Hon. Secretary of War,
Sir: There is immediate necessity for the services of 5,000 negroes for thirty days to labor on the fortifications at this place, those on James River, around Richmond, at Danville, and at several points on the South Side and Danville railroads. The mount of labor to be done, and the importance of having it done promptly, make it impossible to exact it of the troops without impairing their efficiency and requiring their absence from exposed positions. Much of the work is to be performed at places where there are few or no troops at present, but where it is deemed proper to prepare for possible future operations. I think the necessity sufficiently urgent to justify calling for this labor at once. From your indorsement upon the applications of General Stevens for negroes, I understand that you think that the act of Congress of February 17, 1864, does not empower you to order the impressment of slaves engaged in raising grain or provisions, but that the general commanding the department where their services are needed has the power to do so. I am willing to exercise such powers as I possess in the premises, but have no instruments to put them in execution. I cannot consistently with the exigencies of the service detail officers and soldiers from the army for this duty, nor, if I could, would that agency be suitable in my judgment. The impressments would not be made equally and justly, as the officers would necessarily be ignorant of the comparative resources and wants of the districts in which they would have to operate. If the agents of the Conscript Bureau can be employed for the purpose I am prepared to give them such authority to act as I lawfully may. They could consult with the local authorities and arrange for the prompt execution of the impressment in such manner as to be least injurious to the agricultural interests. I inclose a tabular statement of the quotas of the counties from which it is proposed to draw the negroes, showing the credits which each is entitled. The number called for is large, but allowance must be made for failure in some quarters, and as the negroes will be sent on at different times, there will not be as great a number as the call embraces taken from the farms at any one time. I respectfully ask instructions how to proceed at your earliest convenience.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R E Lee
Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 42, Part 2, pp. 1256-1257.
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2016 November 3