By September 1864, events continued to spiral downward for the Confederate States of America. Since the summer of 1864, federal armies had roamed at will in and out of its borders. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and his combined Union armies had recently captured Atlanta, Georgia, and were now attempting to corner the Confederate Army of Tennessee in north central Georgia. Major General Philip Sheridan advancing “up” the Shenandoah Valley chasing the remnants from Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s forces after its defeat at Fisher’s Hill, Virginia. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia remained locked in place by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s combined Federal armies around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. In addition to this growing chain of military defeats, the Confederacy was now running short of personnel and provisions to continue the fight to achieve lasting independence. Without these desperately needed provisions, the Confederate armed forces would not be able to secure their nation’s continuation through the victories on the battlefield.
As had happened with the French in the 1790s, the Confederacy had hoped that groundswell of men of all ages would reverse the fortunes of war. Unfortunately, a levee en masse or mass mobilization did not occur as Confederate leaders had planned; as a result, the Confederacy was forced to turn to conscription for the white male population and impressment for its free and enslaved African-American male population. Confederate military officers saw the African-American male population as a ready source of forced labor for freeing white males to fight on the battlefield. In both 1863 and 1864, the Confederate Congress had passed legislation to impress the male slave population as labors to assist the Confederacy war effort. Impressment did not come without a cost. White slave owners resisted efforts to take their property away from them and not be properly compensated for their use and potential loss. Once away from their owners, African-Americans saw the opportunity to flee toward Union lines or resist the Confederacy through poor work and or by claiming illness. As with conscription of white males, the Confederate government’s efforts to impress slaves created another political storm as slave owners resisted the Confederate military. The Confederate Congress attempted to deal with that controversy by ordering state and local officials to impress free persons of color first before contacting slave owners.
Governor Zebulon Baird Vance discovered during this gubernatorial campaign of 1864 that his effort to impress slaves to work on fortifications on the North Carolina coast was becoming a political liability. His political supporters were slave owners, and they began to weigh their continued support for him against his efforts for impressment. As with conscription, Vance had to walk a fine line to continue his support for the Confederacy, while also maintaining his political support within the state. In addition, Confederate Major General William Henry Chase Whiting, the commander of the Military District of Wilmington, N.C., verbally sparred with Governor Vance in order to force him to commit more troops and slave laborers to strengthen Confederate fortifications at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. General Whiting saw his efforts to defend this territory as the most important military efforts occurring in North Carolina in the summer of 1864. His calls for assistance became so strident, than Governor Vance had to turn to the Confederate War Department to mediate between himself and General Whiting.
The letter dated September 24, 1864, is an example of the General Whiting’s calls of assistance to Governor Vance. General Whiting noted that of the 800 impressed laborers that had already been sent, “…many of these have deserted & many are down in sickness.” He was convinced that there were “10,000 men” available to come into the Confederate army to assist in the defense of Wilmington and the mouth of the Cape Fear River. For good measure, Whiting used a letter from General Lee that stated that “…the force of negroes must be increased…” and that the reserve forces of the state must provide assistance to his forces in and around Wilmington, N.C.