Davis Proposes Arming the Slaves Only if Necessary to Win the War

November 7, 1864 (Monday)

Here's a bit of this and that. Also, we're winning. Promise.
Here’s a bit of this and that. Also, we’re winning. Promise.

Throughout the history of the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was concerned most with saving territory rather than armies. In trying to save Vicksburg, for example, he sacrificed an entire army, losing the city anyway. His top western generals argued that this philosophy was short-sighted, but Davis pursued this path regardless.

And now, when so much territory had been lost, Davis seemed to finally see the error of his ways. In a speech delivered to the Confederate Congress on this date, while he detailed the gains of territory (mostly in Texas and Louisiana), he seemed to have turned a new leaf. The loss of Atlanta could hardly be ignored, and since John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee remained a working force, he instead chose to change his mind on these matters.

“The truth so patent to us must, ere long, be forced upon the reluctant Northern mind,” said Davis, who must so recently have had it forced upon his own. “There are no vital points on the preservation of which the continued existence of the Confederacy depends. There is no military success of the enemy which can accomplish its destruction. Not the fall of Richmond, nor Wilmington, nor Charleston, nor Savannah, nor Mobile, nor of all combined, can save the enemy from the constant and exhaustive drain of blood and treasure which must continue until he shall discover that no peace is attainable unless based on the recognition of our indefeasible rights.”

And so Davis’ Confederacy seemed to be not a Confederacy of geography, but a Confederacy of the mind. And it was his mind that had changed. It had to. No longer could his armies afford to hold territory. If the fall of Atlanta mattered, if it figured into the ultimate defeat of the new nation, then the potential fall of Richmond would necessarily matter even more. Davis had no choice but to purport that any number of cities could fall, but the nation would remain unbroken.

Jefferson Davis turned to history for his next move. Like George Washington, whose armies could ill afford to mount offensives, what to speak of holding cities, Davis hoped to wear down the Northern mind.

But there was also the practical end of things. The armies and the country had to both be sustained. For this, the slave economy was of vital importance. And to that, Davis also turned.

The year before, the Confederate Congress called for the impressment of up to 20,000 slaves to work with the army as teamsters, cooks, trench digger, laborers and in hospitals. The government was merely renting the slaves from their owners, but that arrangement wasn’t working out so well, and here Davis called for “a radical modification in the theory of the law.”

While Davis held that the slave was property, he asserted that the slave wasn’t only property. He was also a person. Since the army had to teach the slaves “in the manner of encamping, marching, and parking trains,” the “length of service adds greatly to the value of the negro’s labor.”

The Confederate Capitol building, Richmond.
The Confederate Capitol building, Richmond.

Davis could separate the slave into two important segments. First, there was the labor of the slave, and second, there was the person. He proposed “to acquire for the public service the entire property in the labor of the slave, and to pay, there fore, due compensation, rather than to impress his labor for short terms; and this the more especially as the effect of the present law would vest his entire property in all cases where the slave might be recaptured after compensation for his loss had been paid to the private owner.”

So while Davis was content seeing the slave as a person, that person was still a slave to be recaptured if necessary.

This, of course, was philosophically only a minor alteration – a bit of word jugglery to make ones self feel a bit better about the whole slavery thing. But Davis was not quite finished. There was, after all, victory. What was to come of the slaves after the Confederate States of America gained its independence?

“Should he be retained in servitude,” asked Davis, “or should his emancipation be held out to him as a reward for faithful services, or should it be granted at once on the promise of such service; and if emancipated, what action should be taken to secure for the freedman the permission of the State from which he was drawn to reside within its limits after the close of his public service.”

Though the slave might gain his freedom, it was a freedom that required the permission of a state for him to live within its borders. This permission, held Davis, “would doubtless be more readily accorded as a reward for past faithful service, and a double motive for zealous discharge of duty would thus be offered to those employed by the Government, their freedom, and the gratification of the local attachment which is so marked a characteristic of the negro, and forms so powerful an incentive to his action.”

Andrew Martin Chandler of the Forty-fourth Mississippi Infantry and  his slave, Silas Chandler, circa 1861.
Andrew Martin Chandler of the Forty-fourth Mississippi Infantry and his slave, Silas Chandler, circa 1861.

In other words, if the slave is faithful as a slave, he would also be faithful as a freed person, especially if no other state would give him permission to live there.

Davis reasoned that freeing the slave only after his “discharge of service faithfully rendered” was the best choice of action. To show that he was a bit more progressive than one might otherwise assume, he also suggested that the slave “might be advantageously employed as a pioneer and engineer laborer.” Also, he wanted 40,000 of them.

But as for using slaves as soldiers, that was right out of the question, though only for the time being. He admitted that “a broad moral distinction exists between the use of slaves as soldiers in the defense of their homes and the incitement of the same persons to insurrection against their masters.”

It was, however, not yet time for such measures. “Until our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require, and can afford to keep in the field; to employ as a soldier the negro who has been merely trained to labor, and as a laborer the white man, accustomed from his youth to the use of firearms, would scarcely be deemed wise or advantageous by any.”

But if it came down to a choice between losing the war and putting guns in the hands of black people, “there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.”

Davis then argued that it was their duty to care for these slaves, which involved “Christianising and improving the condition of the Africans who have, by the will of Providence, been placed in our charge.” The slaves, it seems, were simply given to them by God. And in that light, it was better, thought Davis, to train them to be soldiers and win the war, rather for them to be subject to the harsh policies of the North, such as joining the Federal Army to fight against the South.

“If the recommendation above made, for the training of 30,000 negroes for the service indicated, shall meet your approval,” he said at last to Congress, “it is certain that even this limited number, by their preparatory training in intermediate duties, would form a more valuable reserve force in case of urgency than three-fold their number suddenly called from field labor; while a fresh levy could, to a certain extent, supply their places in the special service for which they are now employed.”

Davis never mentioned where he would get 30,000 slave-soldiers in addition to the 40,000 slave-laborers, but since they were slaves and he was the president, the answer was fairly clear.

“This is the true path to peace,” said Davis in closing, “let us tread it with confidence in the assured result.”1

  1. Sources: Jefferson Davis, Address to Congress, November 7, 1864. []
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