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LT: January 18, 1865 Robert E. Lee

No. 180.

HD QRS Army N Va
18th Jan[uar]y 1865

His Excy JeffN Davis
Presdt C[onfederate] States

Mr President

The loss of the port of Wilmington, cutting us off in a great measure, from access to the world by sea, renders it important in my judgment to extend and systematize the exchange of our cotton, tobacco and naval stores for articles of necessity. I observe that the enemy is disposed to encourage the importation of cotton &c under the impression that it will weaken us. We on the other hand would do well to exchange these commodities for such things as we need more.

The great difference between the prices of these articles here and in the United States, enables us to offer a strong inducement to traders to exchange with us, an inducement that has already been found sufficient to cause a relaxation in the rigor of the prohibition against traffic, and which if united with such a policy on the part of the Northern Government as is referred to above, may by judicious management on our part, be made to supply the loss we sustained in the fall of Ft Fisher. A great objection to this traffic is its tendency to produce demoralization among our people, who will, if not restrained, engage in it for purposes of profit. This is now the case on those parts of our lines in V[irgini]a & N[orth] C[arolina] where this trade is being carried on to some extent to procure subsistence and other supplies. The illicit traffic also interferes seriously with the authorized business of the gov[ernmen]t agents. Any system that may be adopted must be accompanied with full power to prevent the illegal trade[.] It is impossible to do this by guards, as the frontier is too extensive for us to watch. And as the law now stands, the penalty for its violation, being only the confiscation of the property seized, by a slow process, is entirely inadequate, and has no application to those who elude the guards & escape seizure[.] There must be added a personal penalty of fine and imprisonment, and as it is an offence against the safety of the country, it should be punished with great promptness and severity. Another requisite will be to empower the Gov[ernmen]t to impress cotton tobacco & naval stores, especially where they are found in localities exposed to the enemy, or from which they can be easily taken across the lines. This has been recommended by intelligent officers in N[orth] C[arolina] as the only certain means of putting a stop to the illicit traffic there, and is recommended by other obvious considerations. I would suggest that the power of immediate impressment for Gov[ernmen]t use be extended to all contraband articles taken in transit to or across our lines without authority. This would be more effectual than the slow process of forfeiture now provided for to prevent this traffic. With these restrictions, and the organization of a regular system of barter under the direction of a practical and experienced man of business, much good can be accomplished. The best system would be to give contracts for supplies to the lowest responsible bidder, who should be paid in cotton with the privilege of removing it from the country. This is preferable to employing govt agents directly in making exchanges, as is now done. It will enlist private enterprise & cupidity in the service of the government, instead of putting it in competition with it as is now the case. It will also induce great numbers of persons to engage in it, and the aggregate of the supplies received from all will be greater than one agent can possibly get. It will also prevent the immediate appearance of the gov[ernmen]t in the business of bringing supplies over the lines, and thus arousing the suspicions of the enemy. The business will easily be made to assume the character of private trade, such as furnishing supplies to devastated sections of the country, or pretexts of that nature, which with the large margin of profit, can readily be made satisfactory to the Federal agents, by the parties engaged. The interest and cupidity of individuals will be found far more effectual in overcoming the difficulties that beset the traffic, than the most energetic efforts of regular government agents stimulated only by the desire to do their official duty. The trade should be extended to all parts of the country that offer facilities for bringing in supplies, and should embrace all kinds of articles required by the army. Clothing, shoes, and food I believe could be obtained in great quantities by intelligent and judicious management. At the same time, it seems to me that the Gov[ernmen]t should extend every encouragement to the production of articles of necessity in our own country, by liberal contracts with manufacturers. I believe that we should now be more independent had this policy been pursued from the beginning. Much capital has been employed in trustful speculation, which would now be engaged in useful manufactures had not the capitalists been apprehensive that the return of peace would leave them with their means invested in an unprofitable business. If it be practicable to give encouragement to home production now, I think it a much better policy than for the government to engage in the business itself. I respectfully submit these considerations to your better judgment, and trust that you will be able to devise some means to make our large resources valuable and available to the army.(1)

With great respect
Your obt servt

R. E. Lee


Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:

(1) Cf. Lee to the Secretary of War, Jan. 16, 1865, O. R., 46, 2, 1075. An interesting monograph in economic history might be written on Cotton Trading during the War between the States. A large element in the South, led by the far-seeing Alexander H. Stephens, believed that the South had only to put its cotton in bond to establish credit sufficient to finance the war. The dominant party contended that English intervention would come only by cutting off the cotton crop and thereby closing the mills. With this conflict in policy, the enactments of the Confederate Congress were not heeded by the people. Cotton was sent out whenever possible by blockade-runners and formed a staple for unlawful trading, especially in those parts of the Confederacy where the country was overrun by Federals. An interesting sidelight on the value of cotton at this time and the demand for it in the North will be found in the correspondence of Brigadier-General W. N. R. Beall, P.A.C.S. (Freeman, Calendar Confederate Papers, 73 ff.). Beall, at the time a prisoner of war, was paroled by agreement between the Confederate States and the United States to act as agent for the sale of cotton passed through the blockade by consent for the relief of Confederate prisoners in the North. The middling was sold at 93 cents the pound, the pickings 42 cents and 47 cents the pound. During 1864, cotton reached $1.90 in New York.



  1. Editor’s Note: Many Confederate records from 1864 were lost during Lee’s retreat from Richmond and Petersburg.  As a result, many useful primary sources from the Confederate side are simply never going to be available.  What might be less well known is that not all of Robert E. Lee’s known writings from the time of the Petersburg Campaign were put into the Official Records.  In 1915, some of Lee’s previously unpublished letters and dispatches to Jefferson Davis and the War Department were published in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65. These letters and dispatches came from the private collection of Wymberley Jones De Renne of Wormsloe, Georgia.   Many of these letters and telegrams contain insight into the Siege of Petersburg, and will appear here 150 years to the day after they were written by Lee.  The numbering system used in the book will also be utilized here, but some numbers may be missing because the corresponding letter or dispatch does not pertain directly to the Siege of Petersburg.
  2. Freeman, Douglas Southall (ed.). Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C. S. A. to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America 1862-65. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, pp. 318-322
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