While Confederate General Robert E. Lee was dealing with the Union Army of Virginia operating in Central Virginia, the Union Army of the Potomac remained encamped around Harrison’s Landing down river from Richmond, Va. General Lee appointed Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, a native of North Carolina, to command the expanded Confederate Department of North Carolina. This department extended from Wilmington, N.C. northward to the south bank of the James River at Petersburg, Va. General Hill was ordered to attack or threaten the encamped Union army, and to build fortifications to protect Petersburg and the approaches to Richmond, Va. General Lee’s ultimate goal was to protect the Confederate Capitol and the rail hub at Petersburg through the use of entrenchments, so that he could pull additional Confederate troops into his Army of Northern Virginia. It was essential that the works be completed as quickly as possible, so that General Lee’s forces could be reinforced prior to any additional engagements with the Union Army of Virginia.
In his new role as department commander, General Hill struggled to gather enough troops to complete the entrenchments outside of Petersburg, Va. In addition to not having enough troops, the extreme heat was limiting the amount of work that could be completed during the day. In his numerous dispatches to General Hill, General Lee suggested as early as August 3, 1862 that General Hill should gather a force of laborers from North Carolina to speed up the engineering project. Four days later, General Lee ordered Hill to “Get all the free black and slave labor you can…” to complete the construction of the fortifications. General Hill then issued call for a quarter of all slaves in northeastern North Carolina to be gathered and brought to Petersburg, Va. to complete the breastworks.
This call to impress their property to assist in the war effort came as a surprise to North Carolina slave owners. They considered their “property” as being too valuable to be put at risk in a war zone. In Warren County, the sheriff called upon one of the county’s elder statesmen to write Governor Henry Toole Clark for his opinion. That statesman was Weldon N. Edwards, who had served in the General Assembly and United States Congress. Edwards was one of the leaders of the state Democratic Party, and some had even suggested that he should run for governor against Zebulon Vance. He was a strict constitutionalist, and believed that the state should not interfere with the lives of its citizens. In this post, Governor Clark’s response back to Weldon N. Edwards is displayed here.
General Hill was able to bring roughly 1,000 slaves from North Carolina to complete the entrenchments around Drewry’s Bluff and Petersburg, Va. As a result, General Lee ordered troops removed from Richmond to join his army moving toward Manassas, Va. In addition, Lee recommended that General Hill should be replaced as department commander, and General Hill was ordered to rejoin his division operating in the Army of Northern Virginia.