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Hd Qrs Army N. Va.

13th April 1864


His Excy Jefferson Davis,

Presdt. Confed. States,



Mr. President,

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the letter of Col lee written by your directions, with reference to the case of Privt Jacob Shomore Co. B. 52nd Va. Regt. and requesting my views as to the policy of extending clemency to other offenders now in confinement, or undergoing punishment. With regard to prvt. Shomore, my endorsement expressed the opinion I had formed from reading the application for pardon, and the endorsements of Gens. Ewell & Early. I had not seen, nor have I yet read the record of the case, it being one of these tried by Gen Ewell’s Military court before the late law requiring these proceedings to be reviewed by me. My views are based upon those considerations of policy which experience has satisfied me to be sound, and which are adverse to leniency, except in cases showing some reason for mitigation. The fact that prvt. Shomore had been a good soldier previous to his desertion, is insisted upon, as it frequently has been in like cases, as a ground of mitigation, and were he alone concerned, I would be disposed to give weight to it. But I am satisfied that it would be impolitic and unjust to the rest of the army to allow previous good conduct alone to atone for an offence most pernicious to the service, and most dangerous as an example. In this connection, I will lay before your Excellency some facts that will assist you in forming your judgment, and at the same time, present the opinions I have formed on the subject of punishment in the army. In reviewing Court Martial cases, it has been my habit to give the accused the benefit of all extenuating circumstances that could be allowed to operate in their favor without injury to the service. In addition to those parties whose sentences I have remitted altogether or in part, or whom, when capitally convicted, I have recommended to pardon or commutation of punishment, I have kept a list during the past winter of certain offenders, whose cases while they could not be allowed to go unpunished altogether, without injury to the service, had some extenuating features connected with them. I confirmed the sentences, and all of them have undergone a part of their punishment, but recently I remitted the remainder in the order of which I enclose a copy.

Beyond this, I do not think it prudent to go, unless some reason be presented which will enable me to be lenient without creating a bad precedent, and encouraging others to become offenders. I have arrived at this conclusion from experience. It is certain that a relaxation of the sternness of discipline as a mere act of indulgence, unsupported by good reasons, is followed by an increase of the number of offenders. The escape of one criminal encourages others to hope for like impunity, and that encouragement can be given as well by a repetition of a general act of clemency towards individuals. If the convicted offenders alone were concerned, there would be no objection to giving them another trial, as we should be no worse off if they again deserted than before. But the effect of the example is the chief thing to be considered, and that it is injurious, I have no doubt. Many more men would be lost to the service if a pardon be extended in a large number of cases, than would be restored to it by the immediate effects of that action.

The military executions that took place to such an extent last autumn, had a very beneficial influence, but in my judgment, many of them would have been avoided had the infliction of punishment in such cases uniformly followed the commission of the offence. But the failure of courts to convict or sentence to death, the cases in which pardon or commutation of punishment had been granted upon my recommendation, and the instances in which the same indulgence was extended by your Excellency upon grounds made known to you by others, had somewhat relaxed discipline in this respect, and the consequences became immediately apparent in the increased number of desertions. I think that a return to the current policy would inevitably be attended with like results. Desertion and absence without leave are nearly the only offences ever tried by our Courts. They appear to be almost the only vices in the army. Notwithstanding the executions that have recently taken place, I fear that the number of those who have escaped punishment in some one of the ways above mentioned has had a bad effect already. The returns for the month of March show 5474 men absent without leave, and 322 desertions during the month. There have been 62 desertions within the present month specially reported, but the whole number I fear considerably exceeds that some of the large number absent without leave, are probably sick men who have failed to report, and some of the deserters are probably absent without leave, but the number is sufficiently great to show the necessity of adhering to the only policy that will restrain the evil, and which I am sure will be found to be truly merciful in the end. Desertions and absence without leave not only weaken the army by the number of offenders not reclaimed, but by the guards that must be kept over those who are arrested. I think therefore that it would not be expedient to pardon & return to duty any of those now under sentence, or release those under charges, except for good cause shown.

I have the honour to be

With great respect

Your obt. servt.

R. E. Lee





Source: Dougals Southall Freeman, 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 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 154-158

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2021 October 22