Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,

January 13, 1864

Colonel L. B. Northrop,

Commissary-General, Richmond, Va.:

Colonel: Your letter of the 10th instant has been received. I am unable to coincide in your view of the law. It is plain to my mind that Congress intended that the power of impressment given to commanders of armies in the field should depend upon emergencies in fact growing out of their situation, and not difficulties created by laws or orders of the Department. It was never intended as a permanent or continuous means of procuring supplies. Such a construction would do away with the general Commissary Department except so far as it might be occupied in collecting reserves. I think that department was organized for the general supply of the Army, and not merely to make up such deficiencies as the Army itself by the exertions of its officers could not meet. It is true the staff officers of an army in the field may buy, or in cases of exigency impress under the law, but their regular source of supply is the general Commissary Department. A different construction would make it necessary for every army to take care of itself. There would be no uniformity of prices, officers would be brought in competition with each other, and injury to the people and to the armies themselves would necessarily ensure. It certainly has not been the view hitherto taken of the duties of your department, as indicated by its action. The law is very plain and its requirements that impressment by a general commanding an army in the field shall be made by officers of his army alone, and not by the general agents and officers of the Department, as you propose. This appears from the nature of the certificates required to be given by section 2 of the law and by the second section of paragraph 2 of General Orders, 37. This fact substantiates my view that the power is intended only to meet an emergency in fact, and not for the continuous supply of the Army; otherwise, it would not exclude those officers especially charged with the business of the general subsistence of troops. The third section of the law confirms my opinion of the nature of the exigency, for it provides for a case where the emergency is so great to prevent for the time appraisement by the impressing officer and turns over the subsequent adjustment of cases so arising to the chief of the Department and his agents. The emergency that now exists, so far as it proceeds from the operations of General Orders, 144, is entirely within the power of the Department, and while that order remains unrevoked would operate against impressments by my authority just as much as against those of you agents. I repeat that the emergency contemplated by the law is one that proceeds from the situation of the army and preventing free access to its regular and legitimate source of supplies—the stores of the Commissary Department.

I foresee nothing but evil and confusion if the armies are told to take care of themselves. The supplies must be obtained by a general system under a common control, so that there may be uniformity, and the burden made to fall equally upon all. Distress, dissatisfaction, and concealment of stores must result from any other system.

I would suggest some modification in the provision forbidding the impressment of supplies intended for consumption. The causes you allude to have made our people lay by stores for much longer periods than usual. The necessities of the army render it necessary that those at home should subsist, as far as practicable, upon those articles which cannot be so well used by the troops in the field. And these facts should be considered in determining what is necessary for home consumption.

In speaking of ordering your agents, I, of course, had in mind the fact that their services were tendered by you; but, as I have said, I am not at liberty to use the impressive power when an emergency makes it lawful for me to do so, except through the agency of the officers designated by section 2, who must belong to the army under my command.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee,




Source: The War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 33, pp. 1087-1088

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2021 November 21