• The Lees of Virginia
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  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.



Headquarters Confederate States Armies,

February 24, 1865

Honorable Secretary of War,


Sir: I forward herewith a communication received from Brigadier-General Preston on the subject of arresting and returning absentees and deserters. I do not concur in all the suggestions of General Preston. I think a great deal could be done if the States would attach civil disabilities and penalties to the crime of desertion. They should incapacitate a deserter from making or receiving a title to land or other property by deed, will, or descent, and make desertion a good plea in abatement of any suit he might bring. But I do not think anything would be gained by trying deserters before the civil courts. Those tribunals would not be inclined to the rigor which military courts are compelled to exercise toward such offenders. Their forms of proceeding are slow, and the mitigating circumstances which deserters know so well how to invent, and which in fact often exist, would prove too much for the humane feelings of juries. The chances of escape would be multiplied, and men would hasten to avoid the speedy and strict trial by a court-martial by getting themselves brought before civil courts, in which the delay alone would defeat the objects of military punishment and effectually keep them out of service.

Nor do I think the system of State military courts recommended by General Preston, even if they were adopted, likely to benefit the service. I do not think any court competent to try military offenses with benefit to discipline except one composed of persons having a practical knowledge of the wants of armies and the necessities of service. Such tribunals as are suggested would of course be composed either of civilians or of officers unfit for active duty, and as a general thing ignorant of the necessity and importance of discipline. Besides, when deserters are arrested I think they should be at once turned over to the military authorities. The fear of being so dealt with is one of the restraints upon desertion.

Nor do I agree with General Preston as to the formation of the local force to arrest deserters. I can see no advantage that the companies he recommends would have over the reserves, and the latter are certainly more numerous. His plan would in effect take men permanently from the Army, for the youths between sixteen and seventeen whom he proposes to employ in the duty of arresting deserters would in one year be liable to military service. The actual loss would be the same as to take men already of military age. I think the duty of arresting and returning deserters should be performed by the reserves, aided by light-duty and disabled men. They should be thoroughly organized for the purpose, and officered by the most efficient invalid or retired officers. There should be a commandant of reserves in each State, charged with the control of the whole force, and reporting to the War Department through some officer connected herewith for the purpose. If a like stringency in requiring the reserve forces to perform this duty were adopted as is employed in other branches of the service, and a thorough organization effected, I think the work would be done. If the States can be induced to require their civil officers to aid, and all Government agents and employés also, it would serve a good purpose. I think that what is required is the adoption of a plan which will make the reserves understand and feel that they are engaged in military duty and liable to military punishment for its neglect.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R E Lee,





Source: The War of the Rebellion, Series 4, Volume 3, pp. 1121-1122

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 April 12    

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