150 Years Ago This Week: ‘The alarming frequency of desertion’

January 1865

To help mollify criticism in the Confederate States Congress of President Jefferson Davis’s handling of military affairs, the president signed into law on Monday, Jan. 23, an act providing for a General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies. The same day, Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor assumed command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee after the resignation of Gen. John B. Hood following the disaster at Nashville.

Gen. Taylor’s army now numbered only about 17,700 soldiers, as the main force of the army was ordered to move east to combat the advances of Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union troops into South Carolina. In an effort to attack the U.S. Navy ships on blockade service off the coast of Virginia, 11 Confederate ships steamed down the James River from Richmond. At Ft. Brady, the vessels came under Union fire; four of the ships ran aground and the remainder retreated upstream, signaling the end of this venture.

The Congress of the Confederate States again offered to exchange prisoners of war with the Federals on Jan. 24; this time, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant agreed, knowing of the conditions the Union prisoners suffered in Southern prison camps. Previously, Gen. Grant had refused the exchanges, intending to minimize Southern manpower in Confederate regiments. President Lincoln wired Vice-President-elect Andrew Johnson at Nashville that he should come to Washington for the inauguration on March 4.

Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest
Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest

Also in Tennessee, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was promoted to lieutenant general. (effective Feb. 3) and appointed to the command of the Confederate District of Mississippi, East Louisiana and West Tennessee. Gen. Forrest had started in the war in 1861 as a private (at his own request) and had advanced through the ranks primarily because of his military prowess and tactics on the battlefield, and courage under fire.

The Confederate cruiser C.S.S. Shenandoah reached Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 25, to take on provisions and supplies before heading out to the North Pacific to plague Federal fishing and whaling fleets. In South Carolina, a body of Gen. Sherman’s troops operated on a reconnaissance from Pocotaligo to the Salkehatchie River; Gen. Sherman referred to the operation as a means “to amuse the enemy.” As a useful means of diverting the attention of Confederate troops in South Carolina, Gen. Sherman’s plans were to threaten Charleston, but he later wrote that he had no intention of attacking the city. His focus was on the state capital at Columbia.

Gen. Lee wrote to the Confederate War Department on Jan. 27 of “the alarming frequency of desertion from this army [of Northern Virginia]. Rations are much too small for men who have to undergo so much exposure and labor as ours. I strongly believe the Commissary Department can do much more in their efforts to feed the troops.”

As a result of the recent visits of Francis P. Blair Jr. to Richmond from Washington, and other efforts towards a possible peace between the warring factions, President Davis named three commissioners on Jan. 28 to hold informal talks with Federal authorities. Davis named Vice President Alexander Stephens; Robert Hunter, president pro tempore of the Confederate Senate; and Assistant Secretary of War and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell to approach the Union government. The same day, Secretary of War James Seddon recommended to the president that Gen. Lee be appointed as General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies under the act of the Confederate Congress on Jan. 23.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.