Davis: ‘We are Reduced to Choosing Whether the Negroes Shall Fight for or Against Us

February 21, 1865 (Tuesday)

The idea of forcing slaves to fight in the Confederate armies was one of the hottest debates in Richmond. The day previous, the House voted to allow slaves to be drafted as soldiers. Now it had to face the Senate and then the President.


Jefferson Davis had already voiced his approval of the measure, though only as an absolute necessity. As things stood now, however, that time had come. At the end of December, the editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser send Davis an editorial supporting this view, something that paper had expounded nice November of 1863.

In it, the editor thought that Richmond should make “a permanent levy or draft of a certain proportion of the slave population.” Since there seemed to be no way to coax the “stragglers, skulkers and absentees” back into the armies, and since, as the paper suggested, the Union had “marshaled 200,000 of our slaves against us,” the slave population, it was proposed, should be tapped.

Davis, in replying, agreed, saying that the article was “a substantial expression of my own views on the subject.” In continuing, he wrote:

“It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantages or disadvantages of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of our enemy.”

There had been for some time talk about the foreign benefits of liberating at least the slaves who took up arms for the South. This, however, was too little and too late. The Mobile paper had reprinted a January article from the London Telegraph which stated that such a new policy was “a sign of desperation.” Davis could hardly have disagreed with that. The drafting of slaves into the Confederate armies, as he said, was only to be done if absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile in Petersburg, Robert E. Lee wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine. In the spring of 1864, Lee was fighting Grant north of the James, backing and retreating toward Richmond. “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to James River,” said Lee. “If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

It had become a siege shortly after, and time was now very much the question. In a confidential message to Secretary of War John Breckinridge, Lee addressed this question and what it might mean for his army.

“In the event of the necessity of abandoning our position on the James River, I shall endeavor to unite the corps of the army about Burkeville (junction of South Side and Danville railroads), so as to retain communication with the north and south as long as practicable, and also with the west. I should think Lynchburg, or some point west, the most advantageous place to which to remove stores from Richmond. This, however, is a most difficult point at this time to decide, and the place may have to be changed by circumstances.”


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