BY MICHAEL K. SHAFFER ( Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center for the Washington County News

General Robert E. Lee took advantage of the winter weather, and the resultant lull in active military campaigning to put forth his best effort to garner all available manpower not only for his Army of Northern Virginia, but also for the Army of Tennessee. In a January 19 letter to President Jefferson Davis, Lee outlined a shortfall, which he believed, and John S. Preston concurred with, continued to prove a detriment toward achieving the maximum number of effectives. Lee called the president’s attention to “…the abuse of the right of volunteering by conscripts….” Lee, and Preston reporting from South Carolina, knew all too well many soldiers eligible for conscription sought alternative methods of avoiding service at some distant front. Often, this included volunteering for a home guard unit, or some other local assignment. As superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription, and with his familiarity of events in South Carolina, Preston indicated the Palmetto State perhaps suffered the loss of more conscripts than the other states of the Confederacy.

John Smith Preston, a Washington County native, came from good stock. His maternal grandfather, General William Campbell, fought gallantly at Kings Mountain, and his father, a former soldier, and member of Congress, reportedly stood as one of the ablest lawyers in Virginia. Young John attended Hampden-Sidney College and the University of Virginia before studying law at Harvard. In 1830, he married the daughter of future Confederate Lieutenant General Wade Hampton. After service on the Abingdon Town Council, he practiced law in the town before moving to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1840.

A failed attempt at growing sugar in Louisiana expedited his return to South Carolina, where he served as a member of the state’s Senate. Following South Carolina’s secession, Preston visited the Old Dominion and urged representatives and acquaintances from his native state to leave the Union. The outbreak of war found Preston volunteering for service in the Confederate Army, and in his assignment as aide-de-camp to General P.G.T. Beauregard, he saw service at both Fort Sumter, and during the Battle of First Manassas. President Davis then promoted him to assistant adjutant general with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In October of 1861, Davis placed Preston in command of conscription activities in Charleston. This position afforded Preston the opportunity to display his excellent administrative abilities; pursuant to his efforts, he received promotion to colonel in April 1863. Three months hence, he headed the conscription office in Richmond. As bureau chief, he transformed the department into one of the most efficient offices in the Confederate government, and later donned a brigadier general’s stars as a reward for a job well done. In early 1864, he and Lee continued their struggle to obtain new soldiers for the forthcoming campaign season.

The president had other concerns coming his way during the week, as General Joe Johnston, writing from his headquarters in Dalton, Georgia, outlined the various shortages negating his ability to prepare an army to regain lost territory in Tennessee. Johnston lamented, “…we cannot hope soon to assume the offensive from this position,” further noting a “…want of food & forage…his horses had but thirteen pounds each of very bad corn, in the last three days. Of the four brigades I inspected to-day, two cannot march for want of shoes.” One general in the east sought more soldiers, while in the west, another pleaded for food and footwear. January was not offering the Southern president a promising start!

In Washington City, President Abraham Lincoln continued to enjoy the fruits of a rather productive 1863 season on the battlefield, one, which witnessed a victory at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg. However, Lincoln wanted more, and while Johnston wrote to Davis seeking matériel, Lincoln penned a directive to Major General Frederick Steele, the new commander of the military department encompassing Arkansas, instructing him to, “…order an election immediately.” The Northern president, eager to begin implementing his “One-Tenth Plan,” took advantage of a plea from citizens in 23 Arkansas counties to form a Unionist government. They had already adopted an anti-slavery measure and prepared to draft a new constitution, a document, which when complete, resembled the previous constitution except for the outlawing of slavery and making secession illegal. With Steele and his troops ensuring an orderly vote, the citizens elected Isaac Murphy as the pro-Union governor of Arkansas. For the balance of the war, the Arkansas River served as a geographic defining line for two governors and two governments. The Murphy contingent held firm on one side, while those Confederates remaining loyal to Governor Harris Flanagin, the state’s chief executive before the Unionist split, resisted from the river’s far bank. One can imagine a very happy Lincoln, as he learned of yet another victory, this one a political triumph in the Rackensack State.