The Southern Argument Against Arming Slaves

January 6, 1865 (Friday)

While some in the South, like Davis and Lee were desperate enough to consider the idea of conscripting slaves into the ranks of the Confederate Army, many were not so warm to the idea. Such an opinion was expressed on this date in the Macon Telegraph:


Amid the storm of revolution, governments are apt to forget the principles to secure which they were instituted, and by which they should be controlled. All history admonishes us of this truth….it would be constantly kept in view, though all the bloody phases and terrible epochs of this relentless war, that slavery was the casus belli—that the principle of State Sovereignty, and it’s sequence, the right of secession, were important to the South principally, or solely as the armor that encased her peculiar institution–and that every life that has been lost in this struggle was an offering on the altar of African Slavery.

In the light of this great an solemn truth, is it not a matter of wonder and astonishment, that Southern men should gravely propose to arm, and as a necessary consequence, emancipate all the able bodied slaves of the Confederacy, or a large portion of them, thereby striking an irretrievable and fatal blow at the institution. The adoption of this policy would be foul wrong to our departed heroes who have fallen in it’s defense. The compulsory adoption of such a policy would be tantamount to defeat; for what else is the forced assimilation of our institutions to those of the North but the abandonment of the whole object of the war?

The advocates of this measure surely have not considered well the consequences likely to result from arming our slaves. Evidences are not wanting to illustrate the ill-suppressed discontent of many of our slaves in the past. The people seem to have grown over secure because of the unexpected subordination of our slaves during the war. They should remember that the whole white population being under arms, any uprising of the negroes was more than ever impracticable.

How different might be the state of things, if they too were armed. They would be equal , perhaps superior, in numbers to our effective white force within! At best it is not to be expected that they would be more true than our white veterans, and if two-thirds of them should desert and disperse themselves over the country, co-operating with and led by bad men and deserters of long standing, how appalling would be our condition!

Upon the whole, the proposition under consideration seems to be opposed by principle, consistency, self-respect, honor and safety.

These were certainly questions that Davis and supporters of arming slaves had to consider. So many lives had already be sacrificed “on the altar of African Slavery,” how was it possible to offer emancipation to those who joined? Wouldn’t the majority join specifically to gain their freedom? And once the war was won and the slaves freed, didn’t that make the whole thing pointless?

And there was, of course, the fear of a slave revolt. When every white man was armed, the slaves had good reason to behave, but when they too were armed, wouldn’t they not revolt? Suddenly, in the eyes of many, Jefferson Davis was becoming both Abraham Lincoln and John Brown.

Over the next month or so, this issue would be debated again and again. Whether their philosophy of white supremacy would win out over necessity was still very much up in the air. What wasn’t so hazy, however, was that the Confederacy was quickly running out of time to make such a decision.1

  1. Sources: Macon Telegraph, January 6, 1865 – as printed in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader edited by James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebasta. []


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