Your Excellency cannot fail to perceive that the question here proposed for the decision of this Department is of a peculiar and exceptional nature. The Department of War has control only over its own agents and officers, and is responsible only for such operations as are instituted and conducted under its own authority and direction. The powers of the Department are delegated, defined, and limited by law, and the Secretary of War has no authority under the law to enlarge or transgress those powers. The Department of War, therefore, has no authority over the officers of the State of Virginia, and is not responsible for any of the operations conducted by them as such; nor could this Department delegate to any authority, however respectable or however trustworthy - and none could be more so, in the estimation of this Department, than the State government of Virginia - the right to make contracts and authorize operations binding this Government while this Department itself should have no control over the officers themselves or the operations so conducted by them.
Peculiar exigencies, however, and the perfect mutual understanding and consent of the parties concerned may sometimes justify a more liberal construction of the terms of a contract; and the case here presented this Department is willing to consider as of this exceptional nature. Entertaining a perfect confidence in the authorities of the State of Virginia in the administration of the operations in question, and desiring to cultivate a spirit of the most perfect harmony and mutual understanding between the government of Virginia and the Confederate Government, this Department will take the responsibility of saying that the Confederate Government will assume the liability for all operations which were in progress at the time this transfer was made or which, being then under contract, are not yet completed, and desires that these operations may be completed by the officers previously charged with them, being well assured that the authorities of Virginia will issue no work not worthy of acceptance and allow no accounts except such as ought to be paid. The compensation of the officers and workmen employed, and all other expenses properly incidental to the operations in question, will of course be included in this liability. Beyond this, however, the Department does not feel authorized to enter into any permanent obligations with the State of Virginia with regard to any future operations not under the immediate authority and control of the Department itself.
With regard to the question, finally, "whether the armory was (is) to be taken for the use of the Confederate States for operating the Harper's Ferry machinery" - that is, if so understood, whether this machinery shall be permanently operated in the armory at Richmond -this Department does not at present feel able to reply. The chances of war are variable and uncertain, and while this Department entertains a full confidence in the safety of these works at Richmond, yet there may arise contingencies under which prudence might require the transfer of the Confederate armory to some other point more remote than Richmond from the seat of war. Until that necessity shall arise, however, it is the present intention of this Department to continue the operation of this machinery in the armory at Richmond, and under all circumstances, so long as possible, to continue the use of the armory for the objects to which it has been devoted in the service of the Confederate States.
L. P. WALKER,
Secretary of War.