Letter from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis (September 2, 1864)


In this letter to the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, dated September 2, 1864, Robert E. Lee argues for enlisting African Americans into the Confederate army.


Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,

September 2, 1864

His Excellency Jefferson Davis,

President of the Confederate States:

Mr. President: I beg leave to call your attention to the importance of immediate and vigorous measures to increase the strength of our armies, and to some suggestions as to the mode of doing it. The necessity is now great, and will soon be augmented by the results of the coming draft in the United States. As matters now stand we have no troops disposable to meet movements of the enemy or strike when opportunity presents, without taking them from the trenches and exposing some important point. The enemy’s position enables him to move his troops to the right or left without our knowledge, until he has reached the point at which he aims, and we are then compelled to hurry our men to meet him, incurring the risk of being too late to check his progress and the additional risk of the advantage he may derive from their absence. This was fully illustrated in the late demonstration north of James River, which called troops from our lines here who, if present, might have prevented the occupation of the Weldon railroad. These rapid and distant movements also fatigue and exhaust our men, greatly impairing their efficiency in battle. It is not necessary, however, to enumerate all the reasons for recruiting our ranks. The necessity is as well known to Your Excellency as to myself and as much the object of your solicitude. The means of obtaining men for field duty, as far as I can see, are only three. A considerable could be placed in the ranks by relieving all able-bodied white men employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers, and supplying their places with negroes. I think measures should be taken at once to substitute negroes for white in every place in the army, or connected with it, where the former can be used. It seems to me that we must choose between employing negroes ourselves or having them employed against us. A thorough and vigorous inspection of the rolls of exempted and detailed men is, in my opinion, of immediate importance.

I think you will agree with me that no man should be excused from service for any reason not deemed sufficient to entitle one already in service to his discharge. I do not think that the decision of such questions can be made so well by any as by those whose experience with troops has made them acquainted with the urgent claims to relief, which are constantly brought to the attention of commanding officers, but which they are forced to deny. For this reason I would recommend that the rolls of exempts and details in each State be inspected by officers of character and influence, who have had experience in the field and have had nothing to do with the exemptions and details. If all that I have heard be true, I think it will be found that very different rules of action have been pursued toward men in service and those liable to it in the matter of exemptions and details, and I respectfully recommend that Your Excellency cause reports to be made by the Enrolling Bureau of the number of men enrolled in each State, the number sent to the field, and the number exempted or detailed. I regard this matter as of the utmost moment. Our ranks are constantly diminishing by battle and disease, and few recruits are received. The consequences are inevitable, and I feel confident that the time has come when no man capable of bearing arms should be excused, unless it be for some controlling reason of public necessity. The safety of the country requires this, in my judgment, and hardship to individuals must be disregarded in view of the calamity that would follow to the whole people if our armies meet with disaster. No detail of an arms-bearing man should be continued or granted, except for the performance of duty that is indispensable to the army, and that cannot be performed by one not liable to, or fit for, service. Agricultural details take numbers from the army without any corresponding advantage.

I think that the interests of land owners and cultivators may be relied upon to induce them to provide means for saving their crops, if they be sent to the field. If they remain at home their produce will only benefit the enemy, as our armies will be insufficient to defend them. If the officers and men detailed in the Conscript Bureau have performed their duties faithfully, they must have already brought out the chief part of those liable to duty, and have nothing to do now except to get such as from time to time reach military age. If this be true many of these officers and men can now be spared to the army. If not, they have been derelict, and should be sent back to the ranks, and their places supplied by others who will be more active. Such a policy will stimulate the energy of this class of men. The last resource is the reserve force. Men of this class can render great service in connection with regular troops, by taking their places in trenches, forts, &c., and leaving them free for active operations. I think no time should be lost in bringing out the entire strength of this class, particularly in Virginia and North Carolina. If I had the reserves of Virginia to hold the trenches here, or even to man those below Richmond on the north side of the river, they would render greater service than they can in any other way. They would give me a force to act with on the offensive or defensive, as might be necessary, without weakening any part of our lines. Their mere presence in the works below Richmond would prevent the enemy from making feints in that quarter to draw troops from here, except in such force as to endanger his own lines around Petersburg. But I feel confident that with vigorous effort, and an understanding on the part of the people of the necessity of the case, we could get more of this class than enough for the purpose last indicated. We could make our regular troops here available in the field. The same remarks are applicable to the reserves of North Carolina, who could render similar services at Wilmington, and allow the regular troops to take the field against any force that might land there. I need not remind Your Excellency that the reserves are of great value in connection with our regular troops, to prevent disaster, but would be of little avail to retrieve it. For this reason they should be put in service before the numerical superiority of the enemy enables him to inflict a damaging blow upon the regular forces opposed to him. In my opinion the necessity for them will never be more urgent, or their services of greater value than now; and I entertain the same views as to the importance of immediately bringing into the regular service every man liable to military duty. It will be too late to do so after our armies meet with disaster, should such unfortunately be the case. I trust Your Excellency will excuse the length and earnestness of this letter, in view of the vital importance of its subject, and am confident that you will do all in your power to accomplish the objects I have in view.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

R E Lee



Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (January 4, 1831) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (September 28, 1832) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (February 24, 1835) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Hill Carter (January 25, 1840) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (April 18, 1841) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (December 27, 1856) “Some Facts That Should Come to Light,” New-York Tribune (June 24, 1859) Col. R. E. Lee’s Report (October 19, 1859) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Henry Lee (December 6, 1859) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (November 11, 1863) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (January 24, 1864) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant (October 3, 1864) Letter from Howell Cobb to James A. Seddon (January 8, 1865) [future url="PS_LeeBarksdale1865"]Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ethelbert Barksdale (February 18, 1865) Robert E. Lee’s Testimony before Congress (February 17, 1866) Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Allan (1868, 1870) Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Preston Johnston (1868, 1870) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Robert E. Lee Jr. (March 12, 1868) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Captain Wagner (May 4, 1868) Statement by Francis Preston Blair (April 14, 1871) “General Lee’s Views on Enlisting the Negroes,” Century Magazine (August 1888) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (December 25, 1861) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Edward Lee Childe (January 16, 1868)

APA Citation:
Lee, Robert. Letter from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis (September 2, 1864). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Robert. "Letter from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis (September 2, 1864)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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