Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,

April 12, 1864

Maj. B. P. Noland,

Chief Commissary of Subsistence for Virginia, Richmond:

Major: I beg leave to suggest to you, as the officer charged with the management of the system of exchange and barter for provisions, some considerations which I think may be found useful, and which may probably have occurred to your own mind. Whatever vigilance may be used by the military authorities, it will be found difficult to prevent the prohibited traffic in cotton, tobacco, &c., where the inducement to engage in it is so great. It has been reported to me that considerable quantities of tobacco have passed through Gordonsville consigned to persons residing within our lines, but who are so situated that they can easily take the tobacco beyond them. On Thursday last seventeen boxes reached Gordonsville en route to Liberty Mills, consigned to the postmaster at the latter place. A large quantity had been sent thither previously, and though the owners avowed that it was to be used or sold there, it was manifest that the supply exceeded any lawful demand in so small a place. It is also reported that tobacco is frequently sent to Madison Court-House in large quantities, the shipments being made from Richmond, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg. While there is no doubt of the illegal purpose of the owners, it is almost impossible to prove it, and the only provision that can be made to prevent the abuse with any hope of success is to require that no shipments of the prohibited articles shall be made by rail or otherwise from any point without a permit from proper authority, unless the destination of the article be such as to preclude the possibility of its being taken out of the lines. The permit should contain the names of the real owner, of the carrier, and of the place of destination, as well as of the route to be pursued, and the goods should be declared subject to seizure if found on a different route, in other hands than those of the parties named in the permit, or going toward a different destination. By this means it can be ascertained whether more of the articles are being taken to a particular place or by a particular person than is consistent with a lawful use of them, and there will be some restriction upon the trade. All the prohibited commodities found in transitu without a permit should be seized.

In this connection I would also call your attention to the difficulties that attend the lawful trade. As the great object is to obtain supplies and prevent the staples mentioned in the law from being exported except in exchange for them, it would seem that the strongest inducements should be held out to persons who wish to procure cotton, tobacco, &c., to bring in the supplies. This end can best be obtained by withholding the tobacco, &c., and the permit to take it out until the supplies shall be first delivered. It is manifest that a bond to perform the contract will not suffice. What we want is a strong inducement to the party contracting to exert all his efforts to get the supplies to us, and the chief inducement to make such efforts is taken away when he receives the commodities he desires with a permit to take them out. If he succeeds in getting them to the enemy’s country, he sells them at a large profit, and then he will find it much easier and safer to pay his forfeited bonds than to incur the labor, hazard, and expense of bringing in the supplies in return.

If it be answered that the contractor cannot buy the provisions unless he be allowed to take out and sell the tobacco, &c., I think that it would be better not to employ him unless he has means adequate to perform his contacts. This is a precaution always insisted upon in awarding contracts of this kind; and if adequate assurance be given that upon the delivery of the supplies at a designated place the compensation in tobacco and cotton, &c., together with permission to remove them, will be forthcoming, the contract itself will be a basis of credit which will enable the contractor to raise the means required to purchase supplies. Indeed, I think that unless this course be pursued the result will be that, either from dishonest purposes or from actual inability to bring the provisions within our lines, which is practically as bad as the former, the system of barter will result in much of the staples of the country being taken out of it without obtaining anything in return but payment of the forfeited bonds. While this payment will prevent pecuniary loss to the Government, it effectually defeats the object of the system which it is desired to inaugurate. I would suggest that the safest plan, and one that can be carried out with least difficulty and liability to abuse, would be to offer the articles referred to—cotton and tobacco, &c.—with permission to remove them, to any person who will deliver provisions at a price to be agreed upon. A limit might be put upon the amount of provisions to be furnished in exchange by individuals to prevent too great a multiplication of permits. For instance, no exchange might be entered into with any individual for less than 500 pounds or any other quantity. Persons desiring to take these contracts would find means, either by purchase from our own citizens or by bringing the provisions from abroad, to obtain enough to exchange for cotton, tobacco, &c., and the Government would be relieved from the risk of transportation. I think it will be found if proper agents be sent to suitable localities with authority to contract to deliver the staple articles, with permits to those who will give provisions for them, much would be obtained from our own citizens that cannot now be reached by purchase or impressment. Those who sell on such terms can readily procure what they require for their own use or even additional supplies to continue the traffic. Larger numbers would become interested in bringing in supplies, they would come in smaller quantities to each man, and be less liable to seizure. At the same time it would encourage our people to produce more, as it would afford them a profitable market. I have deemed it proper to make these suggestions in order that the system may have as full a trial as possible and in the hope that it may afford us considerable relief.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee,



Source: The War of the Rebellion, Series 4, Volume 3, pp. 285-287

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2022 February 1