Lee Supports Slave Soldiers, Gradual Emancipation

January 11, 1865 (Wednesday)

The debate over whether the Confederate armies should force slaves into their ranks was churning its way across the South. State legislatures, citizens, officers, and even the President all had opinions. Though Robert E. Lee had spoken in favor of such a measure, on this date he wrote to Andrew Hunter, a Virginia state senator, clearly expressing his views.

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee

Lee began by considering the relationship between the white and black population – largely that of master and slave. He thought it best not to create “any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.” Though he would “prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy,” that simply was no longer a possibility. Lee was looking not to the next battle or even the next campaign, but to a “continued war.” For that, they needed more men, and since the only men left available were slaves, Lee wished to draw upon them.

If they did not, Lee feared that “the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all.”

This, Lee imagined, would not only add to the northern numbers, but would “destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people.” He feared that the freed slaves would be used to hold the Southern people “in subjection,” while the white troops continued their campaigning. Whatever ill effect there might be of the Confederacy conscripting slaves into the army, “it cannot be as mischievous as this.”

Lee thought that if slavery had to end, it should be ended by the South, at the supposed benefit to both races. “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions. My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay.”

While some still believed the black man incapable of being a soldier, Lee disagreed. “I believe that with proper regulations they can be made efficient soldiers. They possess the physical qualifications in an eminent degree. Long habits of obedience and subordination, coupled with the moral influence which in our country the white man possesses over the black, furnish an excellent foundation for that discipline which is the best guaranty of military efficiency.”

The most common idea being floated around in the South was that the slaves who were grafted into the ranks would be freed at the end of the war. Lee, keenly understanding the dire need for bodies, was willing to take it a few steps further by giving them “immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing at the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service.”

Lee wasn’t so starry-eyed that he believed hordes of black soldiers would miraculously appear before him when they could just as easily go North into Federal ranks. In this light, he was actually suggesting “a well digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.” He was, in many ways, a realist. He knew that if the North won, slavery was dead and they’d have no new country. If they could win, if they could hold out with the help of the black population, even at the expense of slavery, they would at least have a new country.


Though more realistic than most, Lee couldn’t understand why the black population might not wish to join the Southern Cause. Practically assuming they just would, Lee predicted that his plan “would disappoint the hopes which our enemies base upon our exhaustion, deprive them in a great measure of the aid they now derive from black troops, and thus throw the burden of the war upon their own people. In addition to the great political advantages that would result to our cause from the adoption of a system of emancipation, it would exercise a salutary influence upon our whole negro population, by rendering more secure the fidelity of those who become soldiers, and diminishing the inducements to the rest to abscond.”

But no matter what Richmond decided, Lee warned that they “should be adopted at once. Every day’s delay increases the difficulty. Much time will be required to organize and discipline the men, and action may be deferred until it is too late.”

Meanwhile, in Savannah, General Sherman was responding to allegations from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that he had “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the Negro” during his March to the Sea and time in Savannah.

One of the bigger reasons for Stanton’s trip to Savannah was to question Sherman on this very topic. Sherman had never been a supporter of allowing black men into the ranks, steadfastly resisted their inclusion.

And so in response to the allegations, Sherman gathered twenty black preachers from Savannah to vouch for him. The questioning and answers heavily favored Sherman, and really didn’t address the situation at hand. In one case, they testified that enlisting black soldiers into the Federal army didn’t actually grow the army, but only allowed black soldiers to act as substitutes for white men who would rather stay at home. How these black preachers from Georgia understood this was never explained, though a bit of coaching by Sherman could hardly be dismissed.

When Stanton asked them specifically about Sherman’s treatment of the black population, he received glowing reviews, calling him a “friend and gentleman.” Sherman believed that Stanton had his doubt before arriving in Savannah, “but luckily the negroes themselves convinced him that he was in error, and that they understood their own interests far better than did the men in Washington, who tried to make political capital out of this negro question.”

Curiously, one of the questions asked was what the effects would be “if the rebel leaders were to arm the slaves.” To this came the reply: “I think they would fight as long as they were before the ‘bayonet’, and just as soon as they could get away they would desert, in my opinion.”

This was something Lee never seemed to understand. Or if he did, he ignored it in his letter to Congressman Hunter.1

  1. Sources: Series 4, Vol. 3, p1012-1013; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. []
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Lee Supports Slave Soldiers, Gradual Emancipation by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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