As the massive forces of Union General William T. Sherman approach North Carolina, word of their advance has reached Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia, the army that is desperately trying to prevent Union General Ulysses S. Grant from reaching Richmond.
With many southerners on the home front now ready for the war to end, the prospect of significant home front resistance to Sherman’s advances is not a given in North Carolina.
As a result, many North Carolina troops in Lee’s army have deserted and have returned, or are en route, to North Carolina to defend their families from Sherman’s advances. With the Army of Northern Virginia already stretched so thin as to be near the point of breaking, Lee cannot afford to lose any more troops. In light of his dire circumstances, the Confederate general today pens a letter to North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance.
HEADQUARTERS CONFEDERATE STATES ARMIES
Feb. 24, 1865.
HIS EXCELLENCY Z. B. VANCE
GOVERNOR OF NORTH CAROLINA
GOVERNOR: The state of despondency that now prevails among our people is producing a bad effect upon the troops. Desertions are becoming very frequent, and there is good reason to believe that they are occasioned to a considerable extent by letters written to the soldiers by their friends at home. In the last two weeks several hundred have deserted from Hill’s corps, and as the divisions from which the greatest number of desertions have taken place are composed chiefly of troops from North Carolina, they furnish a corresponding proportion of deserters. I think some good can be accomplished by the efforts of influential citizens to change public sentiment and cheer the spirits of the people. It has been discovered that despondent persons represent to their friends in the army that our cause is hopeless, and that they had better provide for themselves. They state that the number of deserters is so large in the several counties that there is no danger to be apprehended from the home-guards. The deserters generally take their arms with them. The greater number are from regiments from the western part of the State. So far as the despondency of the people occasions this sad condition of affairs, I know of no other means of removing it than by the counsel and exhortation of prominent citizens. If they would explain to the people that the cause is not hopeless, that the situation of affairs, though critical, is so to the enemy as well as ourselves, that he has drawn his troops from every other quarter to accomplish his designs against Richmond, and that his defeat now would result in leaving nearly our whole territory open to us; that this great result can be accomplished if all will work diligently, and that his successes are far less valuable in fact than in appearance, – I think our sorely-tried people would be induced to make one more effort to bear their sufferings a little longer, and regain some of the spirit that marked the first two years of the war. If they will, I feel confident that with the blessing of God what seems to be our greatest danger will prove the means of deliverance and safety.
Trusting that you will do all in your power to help us in this great emergency.
I remain, very respectfully, your obt. servt.,
R. E. LEE
Meanwhile, white Southern elites continue to debate their government’s approval, at least in theory, to arm slaves to fight on behalf of the Confederacy at such a desperate hour as this.
Georgia Baptist Christian Index editor Samuel Boykin has all along been opposed to arming slaves because it would “at once produce a military equability between the black and the white man,” and should Southern independence be “won by the assistance of the black man, he may justly claim all the rights and privileges of citizenship.”
At the same time, Boykin, using inclusive language, declares “We are for perfect and absolute freedom from Yankee association and power, at any and all sacrifices. Independence from their hatred domination is the one great end of this terrible revolution. Let that end be accomplished at all hazards.” And, “If we are forced to decide upon giving up slavery in order to secure independence, we could not hesitate one instance.”
Boykin’s willingness to surrender slavery seems to run counter to most other elites of the South, but even so the Baptist editor acknowledges that taking away the “property” (slaves) of the South’s citizenry would result in an untenable “change in social organization” (race relations). Perhaps, Boykin muses, “our Legislator” could someone resolve the “difficulties” of giving blacks freedom while retaining acceptable race relations.
While any genuine prospects for Southern independence have vanished by now, Boykin’s analysis of maintaining the future subservience of a free black population in the South is prescient.
Sources: “Letter from Robert Lee to Zebulon Vance, February 24, 1865,” History Department of North Carolina State University (link); “Notes on the Times,” Christian Index, February 23, 1865