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.”
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.”
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.
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
- 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. [↩]