By late August and early September 1864, the Confederate field armies were slowly losing their ability to counter the Union offensives in both eastern and western theaters. The push to quickly end the war in 1862/1863 bled the Confederacy down to the bone, making it more difficult to rebound from a defeat by replenishing both manpower and supplies. Confederate regiments and battalions simply did not have enough men even to cover the frontage needed for a line of battle in normal formation for infantry brigades and divisions. To counter this growing deficiency, the Confederate Congress passed a series of three conscription acts to pull men into the armies to maintain the level of efficiency seen in the victorious Confederate armies of 1862/1863. Unfortunately, these acts exposed flaws in Confederate political support in states like North Carolina, where support for secession had only marginal approval by the electorate. By 1863, many states like North Carolina had pockets of rebellion of white male population simply refusing to enlist or be conscripted for military service, and in many cases, physically resisting any attempt to force them to serve.
By 1864, many supporters of the Confederacy saw North Carolina as the main culprit in inability to generate enough manpower to rejuvenate staggering Confederate losses on the battlefield. They pointed to the rise of the peace movement in the state and the growing political support of William Woods Holden. In addition, clandestine Unionist organizations, such as the Heroes of America, were forming chapters in many Tar Heel piedmont and mountain counties. North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance saw that North Carolina was losing the public relations battle with other Confederate states and the Confederate government itself, and attempted to show that North Carolina was a willing and enthusiastic supporter of Southern Independence. He used his brilliant oratory skills to proclaim his support for the Confederacy during his gubernatorial campaign, and to note the sacrifices of North Carolinians on the battlefield to other Confederate national and state officials.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee issued General Orders, No. 54 on 10 August 1864 in an effort to entice military deserters back to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. This general order was an offer of amnesty to those wayward soldiers to return back to General Lee’s army. In the past, executions and other forms of punishment were used to keep soldiers in the ranks, but those techniques did not always work with soldiers facing the prospect of death on the battlefield for a perceived losing cause. To bring former soldiers back into the ranks of his rapidly diminishing army, General Lee attempted to appeal to deserters’ senses of honor and desire to support their comrades in arms. Fourteen days later on 24 August 1864, Governor Vance issued his own proclamation to bring those disaffected North Carolina soldiers back into the ranks. As with General Lee, Vance attempted to appeal to soldiers’ sense of honor, but also asked for his fellow citizens and local officials to aid in this drive to bring soldiers back. Vance’s proclamation was also a veiled threat: “…I hope by timely submission they will spare me the pain of hunting down guilty felons many brave and misguided men who have served their country well and could do so again.”
In Wilmington, N.C., Private Thomas Hansley, Company H, Fortieth North Carolina Troops (3rd N.C. Artillery), was in military prison for attempting to desert from the Confederate forces in and around the Port City. He tried to board a blockade runner heading for Nassau, but was discovered and imprisoned by Confederate authorities. In his letter dated 3 September 1864, he wrote Governor Vance asking for clemency from his charge of desertion based on the recent proclamation of amnesty. He cited personal issues with his company commander, which he claimed forced him to attempt to desert the Confederate army. He wrote “All I ask is one chance more to show that I can be a good soldier…” Hansley’s appeal was successful, and he was released from military prison by December 1864. He rejoined his regiment, and served in the upcoming military campaigns for control of Cape Fear River in early 1865. He was captured at Fort Anderson on 19 February 1865, and was sent to the U.S. Military Prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. He survived his captivity and was released on 13 May 1865.