Lee and His Cause
By John R. Deering




General Lee said to General Pendleton, a day or two before the surrender, “I never believed that we could, against the gigantic combination for our subjugation, make good in the long run our Independence, unless foreign powers should directly or indirectly assist us. But such considerations really made with me no difference. If all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner. I could have taken no other course without dishonor.”

Comrades, how could 650,000 town-men and country boys contend successfully against 2,987,776 Federal soldiers and sailors—an host containing 2,128,304 men more than Dixie ever enlisted? Lacking only 12,224, it was a mass of 3,000,000 men. Yet it took more than four and a quarter Yankee soldiers four full years to wliip each Confederate! It was 7,652,335 Southern people against 23,785,722 Northern, with our 4,000,000 slaves in the rear to plot and spy, to deceive, distract and devour us. And this estimate must be reduced by 3,000,000 Unionists of the Border States. It was these things that made us desperate.

The war was hopeless also for lack of ships, and by reason of the blockade that shut out every resource from abroad. It was hopeless for lack of rail transportation, which let our food rot in piles in Georgia, while Lee’s legions were starving in the trenches in Virginia. Our Commander-in-Chief allowed himself “but two small rations of meat a week.” No bread or bacon at Amelia Court House compelled the surrender at Appomattox. It was hopeless for lack of arms. At Manassas, a John Brown pike was handed out instead of a Mauser rifle. When at McMinnville, I asked General Morgan for arms, he pointed to the Yankee camp and bade me help myself. For horse, I rode a sore-back, broken-down “plug;” for bridle, I had a halter; for saddle, a naked “tree;” for stirrups, a loop of rope; and I went into my first fight with a single cartridge and some mental reservation.

It was hopeless through Grant’s refusal to exchange prisoners; a refusal made through General B. F. Butler to General Lee’s proposal of exchange, “with a view of alleviating the sufferings of our soldiers”—made for General Grant, to whom, of course, it was submitted—a refusal made by the most offensive man and in the most offensive form possible, in the shape of an argument by Butler to obtain recognition of negro equality for some colored soldiers captured and confined by the Confederates. This subject was introduced and shrewdly handled with the intention of insulting the Southern Commander and his soldiers, so as to preclude all possibility of an exchange of white prisoners. That such was its design, Butler confessed before a Congressional committee, in his official report, and he testifies “that it was for the purpose of carrying out the wishes of the Lieutenant-General commanding that no prisoners of war should be exchanged.”

Commissioner Ould, after several conferences with Butler over the matter, says, “We had reached what we both thought a tolerably satisfactory basis.” But when Grant came the next day, he gave Butler “the most emphatic verbal directions not to take any step by which another able-bodied man should be exchanged until further orders from him.” In his official report, Butler says, “I wrote an argument showing our right to our colored soldiers. This argument set forth our claims in the most offensive form possible, consistently with ordinary courtesy of language.” The scheme succeeded. Lee declined to exchange, except “upon the basis established by the cartel.” This never had contained any recognition of runaway slaves as soldiers.

When afterwards General Lee called on President Davis to tell him the result of his attempt, and had, says Mr. Davis, listened to the expression of my bitter disappointment, he said——We have done everything in our power to mitigate the suffering of prisoners and there is no just cause of further responsibility on our part.”

In a dispatch to Butler, Grant tries to justify his refusal by saying, “On the subject of exchange, I differ from General Hitchcock. It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks, to fight our battles. Every man, released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange, which liberates all prisoners taken, w«e will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time, to release all prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat, and would compromise our safety here.” This humiliating official confession is dated, “City Point, August 18, 1864.”

Another effort made by the Confederate Government was to obtain the exchange of “officer for officer, and man for man,” regardless of “the excess,” which the cartel contemplated and comprehended. This offer was not noticed at all, although it would have turned loose every Yankee in our prisons I The next proposal made by the Southern side was to send the United States authorities “their sick and wounded without requiring any equivalents.” This was but partially carried out, because, although attempted in the summer, the enemy sent no transportation for their poor diseased soldiers until November, when our people, unable to move the sick and wounded from distant places, “substituted 5,000 well men.” In return, about 3,000 of our wounded boys were sent to us, the other 500 who started having died on the journey. For sound men the enemy would willingly have given us those dying ones.

It should be remembered also that in consequence of the sickness and suffering among the Yankee prisoners, owing to confinement, climate, scarcity of good food, and lack of proper medicines, our Commissioner, Mr. Ould, offered to buy with gold, cotton or tobacco, the needed drugs from the Federal authorities, “at even two or three prices, if required,” and assured them that the medicines would be used [“]exclusively for the treatment of Union prisoners.” He also agreed, if it were desired, that such remedies might be brought to, and distributed among the sufferers by United States’ surgeons. President Davis says,—“Incredible as it may appear, it is nevertheless, strictly true that no reply was ever received to this offer.”

Mercy might well have given up with such a repulse, but one more heroic attempt was put forth. Mr. Davis sent from the prisoners at Andersonville a delegation of four men to Washington to try if their personal presence and pleading could soften the official heart, and set the captives free. Mr. Lincoln wouldn’t even see them, and they returned, as they had promised, to confinement. There is in Richmond, on file, among the papers of the Southern Historical Society, a letter from the wife of the chairman of that delegation (he is now dead), in which she says that her husband always said that “he was more contemptuously treated by Secretary of War Stanton, than he ever was at Andersonville.”

The refusal of the Federal Government to exchange prisoners was at first based upon its unwillingness to recognize as a belligerent power the Confederate States. In 1861, General Grant wrote to General Leonidas Polk, who sought of him an exchange—“I recognize no ‘Southern Confederacy’ my self, but will communicate with higher authorities for their views.” These “views” agreed with Grant’s. When on July 2, 1863, Mr. Alexander H. Stephens was sent by President Davis on an errand of mercy to Washington to treat for the release of all prisoners, he was turned back from Fortress Monroe, and his Government scorned as “insurgent” his request was declared “inadmissible.” A “mission of simple humanity” inadmissible! Tell it not in Gath!

When “the excess” of captives was in Confederate hands exchanges and paroles were mutual and easy. The trouble began when the tide turned, and the surrenders at Donaldson and Vicksburg had given the excess to the Northern side. To have exchanged them then would have strengthened us the most.

Toward the end of the struggle, all excuses and pretenses were boldly cast away and the policy of destroying us by “depletion” (Grant’s word) openly admitted. All Southern prisoners must be held and starved and shot to death; this land must be laid waste, its stores and crops consumed, its homes robbed and burned, its people, old and young, driven into the woods, its flocks and herds devoured or carried off, and even its farming implements and granaries given to the flames, so that the coming years must be years of famine to such as might outlive the battle and hospital and prison and deportation! We had had “war to the knife, and knife to the hilt,” as among savages, but it was too merciful! War must henceforth be waged against helpless captives, innocent children and our defenseless women. Their food and shelter and all that might make life tolerable must be taken away! In three pregnant sentences Major-General B. F. Butler avows the policy and fastens the responsibility of it on the Federal Government. He writes:

“I have felt it my duty to give an account with this particular carefulness of my participation in the business of exchange of prisoners, the orders under which I acted, and the negotiations attempted, which comprise a faithful narration of all that was done, so that all may become a matter of history. The great importance of the questions; the fearful responsibility for the many thousands of lives which, by the refusal to exchange, were sacrificed by the most cruel forms of death, from cold, starvation, and pestilence of the prison pens in Raleigh and Andersonville, being more than all the British soldiers killed in the wars of Napoleon; the anxiety of fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, wives, to know the exigency which caused this terrible, and perhaps, as it may seem to them, useless and unnecessary destruction of those dear to them, by horrible deaths, each and all have compelled me to this exposition, so that it may be seen that those lives were spent as a part of the system of attack upon the rebellion, devised by the wisdom of the General-in-Qiief of the armies, to destroy it by depletion, depending upon our superior numbers to win the victory at last. The loyal mourners will doubtless derive solace from this fact, and appreciate all the more highly the genius which conceived the plan, and the success won at so great a cost.” The “loyal mourners” will never forgive General Grant, in my opinion.

No wonder that poor Wirz was hung! Somebody had to die! A scape-goat was never needed more. Unhappy Soul! to be the vicarious victim of one’s friends would be hard enough, but to have to die for the sins of one’s enemies—who can describe that anguish? Of this judicial murder, Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President, says:—“The efforts which have been so industriously made to fix the odium of cruelty and barbarity on Mr. Davis and other high officials under the Confederate Government, in the matter of prisoners, in the face of all the facts, constitute one of the bloodiest attempted outrages upon the truth of history which has been essayed; not less than the infamous attempt to fix upon him and other high officials on the Confederate side, the guilt of Mr. Lincoln’s assassination. Whatever unnecessary privations and sufferings prisoners on both sides were subjected to, the responsibility rested not upon Mr. Davis or the Confederate authorities. It was the fault of the Federal authorities in not agreeing to and carrying out an immediate exchange, which Mr. Davis was at all times anxious to do. The men at the head of affairs at Washington were solely responsible for all these sufferings. Neither Libby nor Belle Isle, nor Salisbury nor Andersonville, would have had a groaning prisoner of war but for the refusal of the Federal authorities to comply with the earnest desire of the Richmond Government for an immediate exchange upon the most liberal and humane principles.”

As to the treatment of prisoners in our hands, Mr. Stephens is just as clear and strong. He declares that they shared equally with the Confederate soldiers whatever there was to be had. I myself happen to know that in Georgia the produce of “the tax in kind” stored in Government warehouses was divided into equal parts, and one part sent to the Confederate soldiers and the other part to the Yankee prisoner, at Andersonville. They had what we had—share and share alike. When told by his Commissary General that the supplies were so short that rations for either the Confederate soldier or Yankee prisoners must be reduced; Lee said, “While I have no authority in the case, my desire is that the prisoners shall have equal rations with my men.” There is, however, no use to quote any man, when we have official returns of the United States Surgeon General Barnes showing that a much greater number of Confederates died in Northern prisons than of Federals in Southern stockades; and this in spite of the fact that we held 50,000 more Federals in captivity than the Yankee had of our soldiers. In round numbers they had only 220,000 Confederates; we held 270,000 Federals. Of these only 22,576 died on our hands; whilst, of the 220,000 men held in Northern prisons, 26,436 died. In other words, with about 50,000 more prisoners to feed and guard we had a loss of nearly 4,000 less than the Union people lost of our men.” “The per cent, of Federal deaths was under nine in Southern prisons: the per cent, of Confederate deaths in Yankee prisons was over twelve.” And that, too with the markets of the world open to them for all needed supplies, and their bank-vaults full to overflowing with gold and greenbacks with which to purchase! Query; If in our poverty, we saved three per cent, more lives than they, what per cent, might they have saved through their wealth, if they had been willing?

Repeated efforts have been made to disprove, or somehow dispose of, these official figures of Surgeon General Barnes. They are so convincing and cruelly condemnatory that they cannot be endured. Unfortunately for our friends, the enemy, their shame and the attempt to hide it came all too late. The report of Dr. Barnes is quoted by Vice-President A. H. Stevens, in his great volume—“The War Between the States.” And it has editorial mention in “The National Intelligencer” of Washington, June 2, 1869. No such report can now be found! Nor is any knowledge of its existence admitted by any Department of the Government. Its disappearance is a mystery, but one not so hard to explain as the frequent reference to it by Southern orators who couldn’t have seen what never existed. And the failure of Northern speakers and writers to deny its damaging showing for many years is even more a mystery. When Ben Hill quoted it in 1876 in U.S. Senate, why was it not questioned?

The war was hopeless for want of revenue, credit and a sound currency; for want of mines and manufactories; for lack of sailors and ships of war with which to keep open our ports and closed our river-gates, and for lack of almost all that enters into the business of aggressive warfare. It was hopeless for want of materials, of skilled mechanics, suitable shops, blankets, clothing, shoes, medicines, salt, lead, iron, copper, leather, sulphur, saltpetre and anesthetics. I have seen trains loaded with ammunition and soldiers stopped for want of axle grease. We fought hunger and sickness, cold and nakedness. On the Rapidan, Lee had a thousand men without a blanket and 3,000 hatless, barefooted fellows in the snow at one time; but we tightened our belts, gritted our teeth, and held on to hope. The last charge at Appomattox was as gallant as the first at Manassas. We had pride and patriotism to spare, but we couldn’t feed the living, or raise again our dead!—And so, we failed! We sank in sorrow and sheer exhaustion, but not in shame. General Stephen D. Lee says: “We fought until about half of our enlisted strength was under the sod.” And this enlisted strength was not near so great as many have imagined. Charles A. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, says, in the American Cyclopedia (1875) “The Adjutant-General S. Cooper of C. S. Army estimates the entire available Confederate forces capable of active services in the field was 600,000 men, and not more than 400,000 were enrolled at any one time. The Confederate States never had in the field at once more than 200,000 men.” (See Volume V, page 232.) Here we rest our Cause!

Boys, you loved it well, and stood by it to the end! God bless you for it! You will receive to-night, from the fair hands of Our Confederate Women, the bronze CROSS OF HONOR. It will perish, but not the sweet satisfaction of having done your duty, nor the blessed consciousness of having been in the right! Good-night, Comrades, Good-night!


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