Davis Ponders How to Fill Confederate Ranks

January 5, 1865 (Thursday)

From his office in Richmond, there was little Jefferson Davis believed he could do. His armies numbered, in total 155,000 men. Being winter, and with much of them under seige, it was impossible to know how many would be available to him should fighting begin anew.

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

The Army of Northern Virginia, crouched behind embrasures around Petersburg and Richmond numbered only 60,000. John Bell Hood’s tired and beaten Army of Tennessee could muster not even 20,000. The remaining, roughly 80,000 men, were scattered to the wind, garrisoning outposts and forts all across the south. Nearly half of the Rebel forces were rendered impotent against the almost half-million soldiers under Federal arms.

For months now, General Lee had held his own against Grant at Petersburg, though the Federals more than doubled his figures. The true threat came instead from William Tecumseh Sherman’s army, now at Savannah and amassing 60,000. Should they be able to join with Grant, there was no hope at all for Lee nor, as some were arguing, for the South.

What was needed were more men. The year previous, Lee had made the bold suggestion of using slaves to fill all of the noncombat rolls now held by whites. This would then fill up the ranks with more white men, though it would require more slaves than they could muster. In November, President Jefferson Davis hinted that slaves might be purchased by the government to be used as soldiers and then freed after victory.

As the months slipped by, both Davis, and even Lee had warmed to the idea of using slaves to fill the ranks. In return, emancipation was suggested as a reward for their good and faithful service. This was highly controversial, to be sure. The government and army used slaves in every field and in every position save that of soldier. There were no black Confederate soldiers for the simple reason that it was illegal. And though Davis wished for this to now change, many believed it to be too late. It would take far too long to gather these slaves together and train them to fight.

Before this idea would be entertained, naturally every effort to coax white males into the service had to first be made. There was over 400,000 white men of military age who were not actually in the ranks. Through the many, many exemptions Davis and the Confederate congress had made to their various conscription acts, more men had slipped through the cracks, escaping military service, than had served.

"The old man wailed, tearing at his beard."
“The old man wailed, tearing at his beard.”

And while strict conscription accompanied by a loyal home guard might bring in more bodies, these figures – well known at the time – made many wonder just why these men did not simply volunteer to save their fledgling country.

There was, they believed, men and supplies enough to defeat the Yankees, if only the Government would inspire them to do so. But morale had been smashed. Prior to the re-election of Lincoln in November, many held their breath, hoping that a President McClellan would allow their country to be free, or at least halt the war, let them keep their slaves, and go home. But with Lincoln in the White House for another four years, it was painfully clear to them that the fight would continue until a surrender.

Since then, some of the public was beginning to embrace the idea of black soldiers, though only if it meant victory. To get to the slaves before the North came through and emancipated them, turning them into the ranks against the South, was just a good idea. Many, especially those who did not own slaves, were now willing to give up the institution of slavery to win independence.

Many, but not enough. Too many more were willing to return to the Union. Others, especially slave owners, had relied upon the slaves to make their living. In fact, the South’s entire economy was intertwined and inseparable from slavery. They railed that this would be a usurpation of states rights to own slaves by a central government – the very same thing that started the war.

But even victory with the aid of black Confederate soldiers was not a vow to end slavery. Nobody was suggesting that slavery be abolished. Neither Davis nor Lee were anywhere in favor of such a measure. The institution would exist indefinitely, aside from those few slaves who would be forced by their owners to fight.

Newspapers, such as the Richmond Dispatch, still flowed with ads offering hefty rewards for the return of runaway slaves, most of whom were suspected to have fled with their children to enemy lines. One slaveowner even offered: “one thousand Dollars Reward if taken within the enemy’s lines, or Five Hundred Dollars if within our lines.”


Even Confederate officers had to deal with their slaves running away. One such, a Lt. J.A. Richardson, was searching for his “Negro Boy, William. He is about twenty-one years old; five feetseven inches high; and exhibits a very timid, pleasant and submissive look when spoken to. He is probably lurking about Richmond, preparatory to leaving for the North.”

Here are several others published on this date:

Runaway–seven Hundred and fifty Dollars Reward.
–Left home, on Saturday last, my Negro Man, Robert Lewis. He was for two years porter at the Exchange Hotel, and afterwards at the American. He took with him his wife, Catharine, a delicate negro, gingerbread color, medium size, and about twenty-four years old. Robert is supposed to be making his way to the Yankees, as he has been with the army for the last six months. He is black; thick lips and bow-legged; about thirty-three years of age. I will give a reward of seven hundred and fifty dollars for him if delivered to me, or five hundred dollars if secured so that I can get him.

One thousand Dollars Reward.
–Ran away, last night, my Negro Woman, Ann, and her two children. Ann is of a dark brown color and about thirty-three years old; is pregnant, and has a scar or sink in one check. Her daughter, named Sarah Brown, about eleven years old, is darker than her mother, and very intelligent. Her son, named Charles, eight years old, black, has a thick under lip, and is somewhat bow-legged.

One thousand Dollars Reward.
–My woman, Sarah, with two children, left my premises on Mondayevening, the 2d instant, about 6 o’clock, and is doubtless either in Richmond or making her way to the enemy’s lines. I will give a reward of one thousand Dollars for their delivery to me, or to any jail in the city, so that I get them.
Sarah is a mulatto woman; medium size; about twenty-six years old; good teeth; long bushy hair; answers promptly when spoken to; is usually clearly and polite; nicely dressed, and is an unusually good-looking woman. Her oldest child is a sprightly boy, named Smith, about three and a half years old; the other, a very bushy-hair girl, one and a half year old. A boy named Stephen, hired last year at the Ballard House, left my premises with her. She claims that he is her step-son.

Even though little had changed in the South’s views of slavery, a new conversation had to be had concerning arming slaves to fight for the Confederate cause. Over the next few weeks, we’ll periodically share these views, as given by Southerners.1

  1. Sources: Richmond Dispatch, January 5, 1865; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse; Inside the Confederate Nation edited by Lesley J. Gordon; The Confederate Heartland by Bradley R. Clampitt; Virginia’s Private War : Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy by William Blair; The Collapse of the Confederacy edited by Mark Grimsley. []
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