Ensuring the Enslavement of Even those Who Enlisted

March 12, 1865 (Sunday)

For months, President Jefferson Davis had hinted that slaves might be impressed into the army. The issue had cut the line between idealism and necessity. Many were, not surpringly, opposed to such measures. “The moment you resort to Negro soldiers,” said Howell Cobb of Georgia, “your white soldiers will be lost to you.” His reasoning was simple: “You can’t keep white and black soldiers together and you can’t trust Negroes by themselves.” He, and countless others, were fine with using slaves to build fortifications, for labor, and as teamsters, but “the day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”

A fairly logical (and obviously racist) depiction of what would happen when slaves were grafted into the Confederate army.
A fairly logical (and obviously racist) depiction of what would happen when slaves were grafted into the Confederate army.

But then there was the practical. If the war continued, and the North continued to gain ground, good Southern slaves would be swept up and emancipated. Those freemen would then be put in a Union uniform, given a gun and turned against their former masters. If Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of State, got his way, the 680,000 black men, both free and slave, who resided in the South were as good as free, as long as they joined the Confederate army.

And slowly, this sound logic was spreading. Robert E. Lee himself had backed it, noting that it was only through the promise of a “well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation” that the slaves would fight. This simply made sense to the mathematical Lee. If the North won the war, slavery was dead anyway. Now was the time for this last resort.

In early February, a bill was drafted to free 200,000 slaves for enrollment in the Confederate army. It was, however, defeated. A few days later, another bill was submitted with an amendment stating that the 200,000 slaves that were to be freed would only be with the consent of their masters. But this too was defeated. Largely, the blame fell upon Robert Hunter from Virginia.

“If we are right in passing this measure,” spoke Hunter, “we are wrong in denying to the old government the right to interfere with slavery and to emancipate the slaves. If we offer the slaves their freedom as a boon, we confess that we were insincere and hypocritical in saying slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves.”

Early war pictorial envelope.
Early war pictorial envelope.

This, too, was sound logic. If such a bill was passed, the most basic reason for secession and the war was gone. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” stated Mississippi’s declaration of secession, calling it “the greatest material interest of the world.” South Carolina had argued that the Northern “public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” But now it seemed as if the Southern “public mind” was there as well.

Texas had lamented that the North demanded “the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy.” Virginia herself scorned the Federal government for perverting its powers to enable “to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” If the Southern Slaveholding States no longer held slaves, would this not render moot the point of the past four years? Wouldn’t it render for naught the deaths of thousands upon thousands?

But it was also Virginia who forced Senator Hunter to finally relent his position of sound logic so that, come the first week of March, when the bill was again rewritten and presented, to vote aye.

Before it would be allowed, however, there was a proviso ensuring that this was not a proclamation of emancipation. It stated that “not more than 25 per cent. of the male slaves should be called for under the provision of this act.” Further, it muddied the waters by adding “that nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation of said slaves.”

Even in the best-case scenario, only 25% of the stated male slaves would be even allowed to fight, and no promise of freedom was extended. The bill, as David and Lee had wanted it, had been gutted. The logic behind slavery and secession would then remain unbroken. These would not be men buying their own freedom by enlisting to serve in the army, but business as (almost) usual. Rather than a shovel, the slave would be given a gun. Rather than a homespun shirt, he would be given a uniform. And rather than freedom, he would still be held in bondage.

Early war pictorial envelope.
Early war pictorial envelope.

On March 10th, the Confederate Senate approved the bill and on this date, it was on its ways to Jefferson Davis, who would receive it the next.1

  1. Sources: Civil War Times, 1861-1865 by Daniel Wait Howe; Various secession ordinances from The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader edited by James W. Loewen and Edward H Sebesta; Black Reconstruction in America by W. E. B. Du Bois. []


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7 thoughts on “Ensuring the Enslavement of Even those Who Enlisted

  1. Should have marched every slave to DC hung Lincoln, freed Baltimore and burned DC to the ground

    1. Wow! What an amazing idea! You’re a brilliant tactician and totally not a racist piece of garbage! Thumbs up for you, neanderthal!

      Also, please stop reading my blog.

      1. Well Eric, just a few more weeks and it’ll all be over. Your blog I mean, not the CW. As the specimen above proves that war didn’t end, it just turned cold. Considering how violently sick our nation is these days, I’m surprised you don’t get more trolls on here spewing hatred, racism and rage.
        I, for one, am going to miss these daily reminders of America’s darkest hour. They’ve been informative and at times even humorous and entertaining. Thanks for your time and effort.

        1. I’m going to miss them too. This really has been one of the best things online ever. This and whoever that guy is twittering World War II ‘live’ (we’re up to 1943 already).

          1. Eric, you have done a wonderful job on this project. I agree with Mark that it has been one of the best things online ever! One of the things that amazed me was how men who had no military training did so well as officers in the field(with the exception of Union General Butler).

    2. I’ve always thought it was a mistake post CW not to hang every senior rebel politicians and army officer.

      Starting a war in order to try and maintain slavery? Seriously? Sherman was right, the rebels had a bad cause to start with.

  2. Primary sources prove again and again that everybody knew that the war was about, for, over, caused by, in defense of, centered on slavery. All the chaff about state’s rights, tariffs, a tyrannical Lincoln and all the rest of the attempts to dislocate slavery from its primacy as the source of the conflict are in direct contradiction to the explicit arguments advanced by the Southern political class.

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