If you have ever seen an encampment of Civil War re-enactors, you have probably noticed that a majority are middle-aged and pot-bellied. The reality was very different. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was overwhelmingly composed of quite young men, and they were starving during the winter of 1864-1865. On this day 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee appealed for a better supply of food for his army.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, January 27, 1865.
Honorable SECRETARY OF WAR,
SIR: I have the honor to call your attention to the alarming frequency of desertions from this army. You will perceive, from the accompanying papers, that fifty-six deserted from Hill's corps in three days. I have endeavored to ascertain the causes, and think that the insufficiency of food and non-payment of the troops have more to do with the dissatisfaction among the troops than anything else. All commanding officers concur in this opinion. I have no doubt that there is suffering for want of food. The ration is too small for men who have to undergo so much exposure and labor as ours. I know there are great difficulties in procuring supplies, but I cannot help thinking that with proper energy, intelligence, and experience on the part of the Commissary Department a great deal more could be accomplished. There is enough in the country, I believe, if it was properly sought for. I do not see why the supplies that are collected from day to day could not, by intelligent effort, be collected in such a manner as to have more on hand at a given time. The fact that they are collected at all is proof that they exist, and it must be possible to gather more in a given time than is now done. It will not answer to reduce the ration in order to make up for deficiencies in the subsistence department. The proper remedy is increased effort, greater experience in business, and intelligent management. It may be that all is done that can be, but I am not satisfied that we cannot do more. I think the efficiency of the army demands an increase of the ration, and I trust that no measure will be neglected that offers a chance of improvement.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,