‘If Slaves Will Make Good Soldiers Our Whole Theory of Slavery is Wrong’

January 8, 1865 (Sunday)

In the ongoing debate in the South about whether or not to draft slaves into the Confederate ranks, two more prominent voices expressed their fears, warnings and misgivings about this peculiar turn the peculiar institution was taking.

Cobb: 'If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong....'

Cobb: ‘If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong….’

The first such name is that of General Howell Cobb, once governor of Georgia. He now commanded a small force in Georgia. On this date, from Macon, Cobb wrote to Secretary of War James Seddon.

Howell began his letter assuring Seddon that he had been doing his very best at recruiting conscripts for the Rebel ranks, but feared that many “never will be reached.” His answer to the dwindling numbers was “the policy of opening the door for volunteers.” He was convinced that “the freest, broadest, and most unrestricted system of volunteering is the true policy, and cannot be too soon resorted to.” How this was any different from what the Confederacy had been doing for the past four years, he did not say.

But what Cobb believed would not work was grafting slaves into soldiers:

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you….

To Cobb, this was a simple problem that anyone should have been able to see. “You cant keep white and black troops together, and you cant trust negroes by themselves.”

The Confederate army had always used slaves in the roles of laborer, freeing white laborers for the ranks. With this policy, Cobb was fine, though he admitted that “it is difficult to get negroes enough” for that purpose.

“Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but dont arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong, but they wont make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier.”

Cobb even went as far as to say that it would be “better by far to yield to the demands of England and Franch and abolish slavery, and thereby purchase their aid, than to resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted….”

The general claimed to be more worried about having arms enough to hand out to the white soldiers he just knew would be flooding into the ranks if his policy of volunteerism would take hold: “For heavens sake try it [Cobb’s policy] before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men by resorting to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.”

There were also some practical ideas had by Cobb, such as the rehiring of General Joe Johnston as the head of the Army of Tennessee, replacing Hood. “With Lee in Virginia, Johnston here, and Beauregard in South Carolina you restore confidence and at once revive the hopes of the people.”

Of course, not all in the South shared Cobb’s views. Samuel Clayton was a died in the wool Democrat – a farmer and a father who had lost two of his sons in the conflict. He firmly advocated the policy of arming the slaves to fight, though his reasoning might be questioned. Having exhausted all means of recruiting, Clayton insisted that “the recruits must come from our negroes, nowhere else.”

“We should away with pride of opinion; away with false pride, and promptly take hold of all the means that God has placed within our reach to help us through this struggle – a bloody war for the right of self-government. Some people say negroes will not fight. I say they will fight. They fought at Ocean Pond, Honey Hill, and other places. The enemy fights us with the negroes, and they will do very well to fight the Yankees.”

Mr. Clayton recognized that there were some people who questioned this policy – “But some say that will be giving up the question [of slavery]. What, giving up the question to grip it the tighter? Giving up slavery to have slaves defend it? To have them shoot down the enemies of slavery? Strange notion, indeed!”

Slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864.

Slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864.

To him, it was simple logic. “From the outset of the war we have used the negro to defend the institution by making him raise provisions for the Army, & c. Let him be used still further, and put the sword and the musket in his hand, and make him hew down and shoot down those who come to destroy the institution and enslave us. Would this be giving up the question? I opine not.”

It was then all a matter of removing the hoe from the slaves’ hands, replacing it with a gun, and pointing it to fire north. Clayton was hurting. The war had taken his sons. “Our Government,” he continued, “takes our fathers, our brothers, and our sons and exposes them to shot and shell and sword, to mutilation and to death, in defense of our dear country. Why cant it take our property for the same purpose? He who values his property higher than his life and independence is a poor, sordid wretch; a gold worshiper; a slave in spirit.”

If the South did not arm the slaves to fight for slavery, the entire South would become slaves. Clayton made no mention of emancipation following service. To him, it was not an issue. The slaves were property that, like a well-behaved mule, could be made to either till the soil, pick cotton or kill. He could not even see the possibility of a slave revolt if they were armed. The South had been “reduced to this last resort,” and because of that “the negro must be put into the Army or we shall be subjugated by the hated foe.”

And so, according to Howell Cobb, if the slave was conscripted into the ranks, it would lead “certainly to ruin and subjugation.” But according to Clayton, unless the slave was conscripted into the ranks, it would lead to the South being “subjugated by the hated foe.”

It is curious that both (and many) from the South considered the worst thing that could befall their society was subjugation, to be made slaves themselves.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 3, p1009-1011. []
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  1. Thanks for finding these sources and sharing. Cobb’s is of course a famous statement, but the two of them together make an illuminating contrast. Once again we see that the whole “black confederate” myth would have seemed bizarre to the actual confederates; the idea of arming slaves was scarcely considered seriously until the end of the war was near.