Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,

January 13, 1864

His Excellency Jefferson Davis,

President Confederate States, Richmond, Va.:

Mr. President: I have the honor to call your attention to some matters affecting the execution of the conscript law in the case of those who have recently been made liable to it, as well as of others.

There is a strong disposition manifested by the men to enlist in commands serving near their homes. This has been the case in several States, but I refer particularly to Western Virginia. I am informed that this disposition is encouraged by the officers, who are naturally desirous to increase their forces. The evils of the system have already been experienced. Men who so enlist conceive that they have a kind of right to serve in certain localities, and are averse to being transferred to others. This was illustrated by the numerous desertions that took place last summer from the commands of General Jenkins, Colonel Wharton, and Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke when they were brought to this army. But another and greater objection arises from the condition of the commands in Western Virginia. I regret to say that, from all I can learn, those which would probably be most resorted to by such conscripts in that country as avail themselves of the right to volunteer are not as efficient as they should be, and that the men who may go into them will be to a great extent lost to the general service without a thorough reorganization of these forces. I refer particularly to the commands of General Imboden, Col. W. L. Jackson, and Maj. Gen. Sam Jones.

My own opportunities of observation have not impressed me favorably with regard to the discipline and efficiency of General Imboden’s troops, and the accounts I receive represent the others, with few exceptions, to be no better.

General Early in a recent letter states that his operations were impeded, and in a measure arrested by his inability to get service from General Imboden’s men. He says he could get no information about the enemy because he could make no reconnaissances with those troops. I have been disappointed in my expectations of the services of General Sam Jones command also. I think a reorganization of these troops necessary, and a change of commanders desirable.

The department requires a man of judgment and energy, whose discretion can be depended upon without always awaiting orders. The importance of this command will be augmented in view of the occupation by the enemy of East Tennessee, threatening Southwest Virginia, and demanding able, intelligent, and vigorous management on our part. We can afford to lose nothing by want of discipline and efficiency among the troops.

In the mean time, in view of the facts I have alluded to, I think it desirable that no more men should be permitted to enter the organizations I have mentioned then it is impossible to prevent, as I consider that those who do enlist in them will be taken from the efficient strength of the army in a great measure.

I am told that the repeal of the substitute law will bring in about 1,400 men from the counties of Rockingham and Augusta, besides large numbers from the vicinity of Lynchburg. The former will probably elect to volunteer and in Imboden’s and the others in Jackson’s and Jones’ commands.

If nothing more can be done, I earnestly recommend that none be permitted so to enlist beyond the number required to fill up existing organizations in those commands. No increase of them from this source should be allowed, but all the men that can be obtained should be used to fill up the depleted regiments of this army:

What I have said of Virginia is equally applicable to other States. The disposition to enlist in organizations somewhat local in their nature and remote from the principal theater of hostilities, should be checked, and the recruits thrown as far as possible into the more important and active armies, which need them most. I respectfully suggest that the enrolling officers be ordered to see that none volunteer in such commands as I have mentioned beyond the legal complement and that no new companies be formed.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee,





Source: The War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 33, pp. 1085-1086

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2021 November 21