War of the Rebellion: Serial 088 Page 1260 OPERATIONS IN SE. VA. AND N. C. Chapter LIV.

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Richmond, Va., September 19, 1864.

General R. E. LEE,

Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:

GENERAL: I have the honor to acknowledge your letter of the 17th instant, relative to the impressment of 5,000 slaves to work on the fortifications. You are right in supposing my reference of the subject to you was owing to doubt whether my powers allowed the impressment of slaves engaged in agriculture and whether the discretion was not confided exclusively to commanding generals. I should not have hesitated on the score of responsibility pertains to the administrative duties of the Department. While, however, your authoritative sanction is required for the impressment, I do not consider it necessary you should exercise it by officers of your army. In this opinion, too, the Assistant Secretary of War, to whose legal opinion great deference is justly due, concurs. The agencies of the Conscript Bureau will, therefore, in my judgment, be appropriately employed in making the impressments without delay. Orders will be issued referring to your call, and stating the impressment to be necessary in your judgment, and impressing upon the officers of that bureau the importance of a prompt execution of the duty. I trust the number of laborers will be speedily forthcoming.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Secretary of War.


September 20, 1864.



SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of yesterday, with reference to the impressment of negroes for work on fortifications, &c., and thank you for the prompt measures you have taken in the premises. I think that the time has arrived when the public safety requires that we shall employ negro labor with the army in all cases where it can be used to relieve able-bodied white men. The teamsters and other laborers engage in cutting wood for mines and factories, machine shops, &c., and all doing mere manual labor in connection with supplying the armies, can be well taken from this class, and the white men now detailed for that purpose put in the ranks. The accession to our numbers by this means would be great, and I need not repeat what I have said as to the necessity of recruiting our armies. I understood the act of Congress of 17th of February last as designed to clothe the department with this authority, as its title and preamble indicate. The slaves called for in my last letter for thirty days, as I understand the subject, are to be impressed in accordance with a former law, passed to regulate temporary impressment of negro labor. This former law is referred to in the law of 17th of February to regulate the manner of impressment, but not, as I understand it, to limit or alter the powers conferred by the latter act. If I am correct in this view, I respectfully urge the exercise of this power by the Department without delay, to the extent of replacing all detailed men in service with negroes where the latter can be used with advantage, and all white laborers in