Davis Signs Bill Authorizing Slaves in the Confederate Army; The Reaction and Plans of the Black Population

March 13, 1865 (Monday)

Jefferson Davis could feel it all coming apart. He paced away, as Judah Benjamin later wrote, “the anxious hours when we could not but perceived that our holy and sacred cause was gradually crumbling under a pressure too grievous to be bourne, and when we looked every where for some sign of sympathy, some promise of help, some ray of hope.”


Publically, Davis was all of these things and more. His speeches and proclamations propounded the coming achievements, the battles to be won, and the new country before them. He promised what all wanted – peace. But this was a peace through triumph, not a mere ceasation of hostilities under the boot of the Federal government.

He awaited this latest hope: the bill passed by the Confederate Congress that called for the use of slaves in the ranks of the armies. But on the morning of this date, though he had heard of its approvale on the 10th, he had not yet seen the bill to sign it.

“The bill for employing negroes as soldiers,” Davis so kindly wrote in what would be his last address to Congress, “has not reached me though the printed journals of your proceedings inform me of its passage. Much benefit is anticipated from this measure, though far less than would have resulted from its adoption at an earlier date, so as to afford time for their organization and instruction during the winter months.”

He closed this lengthy message with a call to prayer:
“Thus united in a common and holy cause, rising above all selfish considerations, rendering all our means and faculties tributary to the country’s welfare, let us bow submissively to the Divine will and reverently invoke the blessing of our Heavenly Father, that, as he protected and guided our sires when struggling in a similar cause, so he will enable us to guard safely our altars and our firesides and maintain inviolate the politcial rights which we inherited.”

The only right held by his forefathers that was being threatened was the right to own slaves. This new measure “for employing negroes as soldiers,” would not change this. In fact, it was not employment at all.

When Davis finally received a copy of the bill, it read:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That, in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.

This was not, as happened in the North, an allowance for black men to volunteer to serve in the army. This act allowed Davis to request slave owners to give their slaves over to the Confederate government so that they could be made soldiers. As incentive, the slaves would “receive the same rations, clothing, and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of the service.”

There was a catch, however. 300,000 slaves were wanted, but if that amount could not be reached, Davis was “authorized to call on each State, whenever he thinks it expedient, for her quota.”

The signed bill concluded by reinforcing their right to slavery: “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.”

To General Lee, Davis wrote of the signing:
“I am in receipt of your favor in regard to the bill for putting negoes in the army. The bill was received from the Congress to-day and was immediately signed. I shall be pleased to receive such suggestions form you as will aid me in carrying out the law, adn I trust you will endeavor in every available mode to give promptitude to the requisite action.”

Just how many slaves the slaveowners would be willing to part with was still anyone’s guess. According to a contemporary black newspaper, this was the reaction by slave and freedmen alike:

“Secrect associations were at once organized in Richmond, which rapidly spread throughout Virginia, where the venerable patriarchs of the oppressed people prayerfully assembled together to deliberate upon the proposition of taking up arms in defense of the South. There was but one opinion as to the rebellion and its object; but the question which puzzled them most was, how were they to act the part about to be assigned to them in this martial drama? After a cordial interchange of opinions, it was decided with great unanimity, and finally ratified by all the auxiliary associations everywhere, that black men should promptly respond to the call of the Rebel chiefs, whenever it should be made, for them to take up arms.

“A question arose as to what position they would likely occupy in an engagement, which occasioned no little solicitude; from which all minds were relieved by agreeing that if they were placed in front as soon as the battle began the Negroes were to raise a shout about Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and, satisfied there would be plenty of supports from the Federal force, they were to turn like uncaged tigers upon the rebel hordes. Should they be placed in the rear, it was
also understood, that as soon as firing began, they were to charge furiously upon the chivalry, which would place them between two fires; which would disastrously defeat the army of Lee, if not accomplish its entire annihilation.”

In the meanwhile, and on this date, ads were run in the Richmond Daily Dispatch offering rewards for runaway slaves. One such offered $1000 for “the apprehension of my man, Norman, and his wife, Ellen, and Infant, who left my house, on Mayo street, on Wednesday night last, I will pay the above reward. Norman is about twenty-four years old; light brown color, about five feet nine inches high; wore whiskers, and was dressed in a grey suit Ellen is of dark color, tall and likely, and took with her infant child, and was dressed in a red and brown mouselin.” 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 2, p1308; Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 13, 1865; The Messages and Papers of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy; Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois; Jefferson Davis, American by William J. Cooper. []


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