CONFEDERATE NEGRO ENLISTMENTS
No circumstances connected with the late war caused more surprise, perhaps, than the general conduct of the slave population of the South during the whole contest. This surprise was common to the people of both sections, for there were few persons at the North who did not expect, and at the South who did not fear, a servile insurrection as the Federal armies penetrated deeper into the Southern territory. The people of the South did not, of course, have any great opinion of the negros’ courage, but still they felt apprehensive about the women and children left at home, and fearful, too, in regard to neglected plantation work; and the fact of this apprehension is embodied in all the draft schemes and conscription laws of the Confederacy, which, both under the State government regimen, and later under the general conscription system, made specific provision for a certain line of exemptions, looking to the peace and good order of the plantations, and keeping the negroes at work. These exemptions included detailed officers and veterans, home guards, etc., and, even in the last and severest conscription law passed in the fall of 1864, one overseer was exempted “for each plantation containing over fifteen able-bodied male slaves.”
On the other hand, a slave insurrection was counted on at the North as one factor in the war. It was deprecated, of course; it was not invited, but it was still looked for, and the Emancipation Proclamation was calculated upon as a means of inciting the negroes to strike for their freedom. Those who will examine the periodicals of the period-the Atlantic Monthly, for instance; the Continental Monthly, etc.-will find them teeming with historical instances written up of slaves who had so risen. The Atlantic, in particular, in urging the Emancipation Proclamation, took occasion to give, as arguments for it, detailed accounts of the revolt of Spartacus, of the Maroons, of Nat. Turner’s outbreak, etc.; all showing the wish that was father to the thought. Butler speculated in this sort of business at Fortress Monroe and New Orleans, and Hunter tried it in South Carolina and Florida. Higginson’s regiment at Beaufort was intended to be a nucleus for the negro rising which was looked for on the Carolina coast.
The negroes, however, refused to disturb the Confederates with any fire in the rear. They behaved in the most exemplary manner everywhere. Where the Federal armies settled down they came in in large numbers, and established their camps upon the fringes of the army, playing the parts of “intelligent contrabands” to perfection. They told miraculous stories, and brought in no end of “grape-vine ” intelligence for the divertissement of the newspaper correspondents, and the gobemouches; but they were disgustingly apathetic on the subject of striking “blows for liberty.” They had no fight in them, in fact, and, when they came into camp, had no idea of any other freedom than freedom from work and free rations. The best of the negroes, where they could, stayed at home and worked along as usual, and there was no general enlistment of the negroes until the substitute brokers began to buy them up, and put them in the army by wholesale.
There can be no doubt that the negroes behaved very well, and that the Confederate people had a lively and very grateful appreciation of the fact. There is evidence enough and to spare of this. I have before me a curious pamphlet, “Marginalia; or, Gleanings from an Army Note-book,” by “Personne,” army correspondent of the Charleston Courier, published at Columbia, S. C., in 1864, which abounds with instances and recitals of the good conduct of the negroes. Thus, “Personne” relates the story of Daniel, a slave of Lieutenant Bellinger, who was shot to pieces trying to take his master’s sword to him, in the fort at Secessionville, during the assault on that post, and he says: “Such instances of genuine loyalty have their parallel nowhere so frequently as in the pages of Southern history, and gives a flat contradiction to all the partial and puritanical statements ever made by Mrs. Stowe and her tribe of worshiping abolitionists.” “The fidelity of our negroes,” this writer says, in another Place, “has been as much a subject of gratification to us as of surprise to the enemy. It has been thought that every slave would gladly avail himself of an opportunity to regain his freedom; but the prophets have been disappointed. General John B. Gordon, United States Senator from Georgia, who used to own several plantations and a great many slaves, in his testimony before the Ku-Klux Investigating Committee, in July, 1871, spoke in the strongest terms of the good conduct of the Southern negroes during and after the war. He said that “they have behaved so well since the war that the remark is not uncommon in Georgia, that no race, relieved from servitude under such circumstances as they were, would have behaved so well.” As for their conduct during the war, when he was asked about that, General Gordon said:
Well, sir, I had occasion to refer just now to a little speech which I made at Montgomery, Alabama, where General Clanton also spoke. He and I both struck on that train of thought. I went so far as to say that the citizens of the South owed it to the negroes to educate them. One of the things which I mentioned, and which General Clanton also mentioned, was the behavior of the negroes during the war; the fact that when almost the entire white male population, old enough to bear arms, was in the army, and large plantations were left to be managed by the women and children, not a single insurrection had occurred, not a life had been taken; and that, too, when the Federal armies were marching through the country with freedom, as it was understood, upon their banners. Scarcely an outrage occurred, on the part of the negroes, at that time. * * * The negroes were aware that the contest would decide whether they were to be slaves or freemen. I told my slaves of it at the beginning of the war. I think that the negroes generally understood that if the South should be whipped freedom would be the result.
The negroes, in fact, as General Gordon said, were happy because they were treated kindly and had few cares. They were attached to their masters, with whom they had been associated all their lives, being naturally an amiable, good-tempered race, with very strong local attachments, and very affectionate to their kinsmen and those they were used to look up to. They have an ardent clansense, and the master used to be revered as the head of the sept. This was the case everywhere, except on the large coast plantations, where the negroes seldom saw a white man, were brutalized, of low intelligence, speaking a language of their own, scarcely to be understood by the whites. These negroes, like those of Cuba, were only half naturalized and had many of their old barbarian African habits and instincts; but elsewhere the case was different. As General Gordon said:
In the upper part of the State, where I was raised, the negro children and the white children have been in the habit of playing together. My companions, when I was being raised, were the negro boys that my father owned. We played marbles, rode oxen, went fishing, and broke colts together; a part of my fun was to play with those colored boys. The negro girls-those who were raised about the house-were raised very much as the white family was raised. They were raised in the family, and, of course, the intelligence of the family extended, in some measure, to the negroes.
These house servants considered themselves to “belong to the family,” and no people in the world have such an acute aristocratic pride as the negroes. The good family slaves looked down with ineffable contempt upon “de pore white trash,” and they do so still. A great part of the lordly airs which negro legislators have put on of late years proceeds from their contempt for the carpet-baggers, whom they consider as being of the “trash” species. Wade Hampton’s old body-servant was senator from Columbia, South Carolina, and used to make Tim Hurley stand about, and treated Chamberlain, and Moses, and Scott with huge disdain; but he touches his hat to his old master to this day, and all the former slave negroes have the same sort of recognition for “de quality,” under no matter what adverse
circumstance, that the Irish peasantry have for their lineal descendants of the O’Brien’s and the O’Shaughnessey’s who used to rule over them with rods of iron. Strong friendships and the utmost familiarity of personal relationship grew out of this lifelong intercourse between the house servants and their masters; and a great many body-servants not only followed their masters to the field, and devoted themselves to their service in the tenderest way, but fought, bled, and died for them. There are some touching instances of this intercourse and this devotion which are worth relating. When General Joseph E. Johnston was at Jackson, at the Lamar House, in the full tide of a brilliant reception, an old negro woman, in a coarse sunbonnet, with a cotton umbrella under her arm, rapped at the door, and asked: “Is dis Mr. Johnston’s room?” “Yes.” “Mr. Joe Johnston’s room?” “Yes.” “I wants to see him, den;” and in marched the old lady, going up to the distinguished soldier, and laying her hand familiarly upon his epauleted shoulder. Johnston turned, a look of surprise and gladness overspread his face, he took both the bony, bird-claw hands warmly in his own, and exclaimed: “Why, Aunt Judy Paxton!” The old negress scanned his features with tears in her eyes, and at last said, in a querulous treble, made touching with undisguised emotion: “Mister Joe, youis gittin’ old.” Then, patting his hand, the old nurse turned half apologetically to the assemblage, and said: ” Dis here’s my own boy. Many’s de time I’s toted you in dese yere arms; didn’t I, honey?” Such a scene would be strange elsewhere, but it was not so in the South. The artless sense of equality grew out of the strongest sort of affectionate regard.
General Gordon, in the testimony cited above, said:
“The very kindliest relations exist between the old masters and their former servants. I could give, from Day own personal knowledge, instances of the very tenderest expressions of kindness and enthusiastic demonstrations of love on the part of negroes for their old masters. In one case, a body-servant of mine came a long distance to see me. After having been captured by the Federal army in Georgia, and staying with them for months, he came back to me just after the surrender, and told me he preferred to serve me rather than have his freedom, if he must be separated from me, though he wanted his freedom. His wife was my wife’s chambermaid. She wanted to go with me to Brunswick. She had been raised by my wife, and had been raised very much as my wife was. I had paid an enormous price for her husband after my marriage, so as to have him with his wife. I had been offered $2,500 for him, which I had refused to take. I would not have sold him at all, any more than I would have sold my brother. These two negroes were anxious to go with us to Brunswick, but I had but little money, and was unable to take them. On my return to that portion of Georgia, two years afterward, I walked from my father’s house a mile before breakfast to their little cabin to see them. When I got to the door the woman was sitting at he breakfast table. As I opened the door she was in the act of drinking coffee from a saucer. In her excitement at seeing me, she let the saucer fall upon the floor, sprang to me, gathered me in her arms, and sank at my feet, crying: ” Massa John, I never knew who my friends were before-”
These are two instances from the associations of two leading Confederates. Take another, from General Lee’s life, to show the Caleb Balderstone sort of devotion with which these house servants used to guard their masters’ interests. -It is from “Personne’s” pamphlet, and relates to the last year of the war, when provisions were scarce, and the General himself only had meat twice a week:
Having invited a number of gentlemen to dine with him, the commander-in-chief, in a fit of extravagance, ordered a sumptuous repast of cabbage and middling. The dinner was served, and, behold, a great pile of cabbage, and a bit of middling, about four inches long and two inches across. The guests, with commendable politeness, unanimously declined middling, and it remained in the dish untouched. Next day, General Lee, remembering the delicate tid-bit that had been so providentially preserved, ordered his servant to bring him ” that middling.” The man hesitated, scratched his head, and finally owned up: ” De fac is, Marse Robert dat dar middlin’ was borrowed middlin’. We all didn’t have nary a spee, so I done borrowed it, an’ now I done paid it back to de man whar I got it from, sar.”
This servant was a true Southern family darkey, with all the pride of his connections in him. He was like the waiter at the Southern hotel where the abolitionist lecturer put-up, and who was so impassive and unresponsive to the enthusiast’s praises of freedom and horror of slavery, that at last the latter cried: “Leave Me! leave me! I cannot endure the spectacle of such obtuseness after such misfortune. Go! I will not be waited upon by one who is a slave indeed!” “Excuse me, master, said the negro, “I’d like werry much to ‘commodate you, sar, but I’se ‘sponsible for de spoons, sar.” General Lee’s servant was responsible, in his own opinion, for the good appearance of his master’s table, and if he had not been able to secure the bacon, he would have suffered as many agonies as Louis XIV.’s grand valet did when the turbot did not come in time to be served at the king’s banquet.
The devotion of this class of negroes, many of whom followed their masters to the field, was only exceeded by their pride in their families and place. John Robinson, a Savannah pilot, attached to a Nassau blockade-runner, was two or three times captured, but retained his loyalty through all, and always returned to his old master and his old master’s family. His master was killed in the defense of Fort McAlister, and, John was taken to Fort Lafayette, and kept prisoner for eight months, while every persuasion, and a hundred dollars a month wages, were offered him to enter the Federal service, but he continued staunch. In one of the battles near Petersburg, a slave in a Federal regiment saw his former young master on the field in danger. He threw down his musket, and ran to him and carried him into the Confederate ranks. There are repeated instances of negroes on the plantations concealing and saving their master’s property at great personal hazard to themselves; burying cotton and plate, and guarding the caches faithfully. When the war broke out, John Campbell, the well-known horse-racer; went to Mobile, leaving his stables in Kentucky in charge of a slave. Four years later, when Campbell returned, a poor man, his negro had all the horses and their increase waiting for his master, and in the very best condition. There was nothing to prevent this faithful fellow from making away with all of Campbell’s property.
This class of negroes in the South knew that the war would set them free, as General Gordon said, but they did not want much to be free. Not that they wanted to be slaves at all, but they looked down upon and despised the condition of the free negroes whom they saw around them, and they considered that the Federals, in warring upon their “families” were warring upon themselves. They got bravely over this sort of thing very shortly after the war ended, but they were sincere in the feeling during the war, and would have fought, nay, did fight sometimes, by the side of. their masters. A good many of these servants who followed their masters afield, albeit not fond of bullets, are known to have now and then taken “hot shots” at the “Yankees.” Lieutenant Shelton’s man Jack, of the, Thirteenth Arkansas, fell at his master’s side at the battle of Belmont. When Jack was shot, Jack’s son took his rifle and went to the field to avenge his “daddy.” Major White, of the Alabama battalion that bore his name, had a negro servant who risked his life to bear off his master’s body from the field when he was shot down, and after the funeral he took his master’s horse and effects, and rode home with them, over a thousand miles, to the old plantation. A Florida negress illustrated the principle of “family” pride which is characteristic of the race, in a quaint and touching way. Her young masters, both lads, were conscripted and ordered to Pensacola. As they were taking tearful leave of friends and home, the old “mammy ” said: “Now, young marsters, stop dis hyar cryin’; go and fight fer vo’ country like men, and mind, don’t disgrace de family nor me nuther.”
I could accumulate columns of this sort of anecdotes, all well authenticated, but what I have given will more than suffice. The Confederates found by experience that the negroes, as a rule, were faithful and well behaved, and they trusted them in some things a great deal. This was especially the case with the slave owners. Between the poor whites, however, and the negroes, there was no sort of sympathy nor confidence, and this circumstance alone would have prevented the Confederate Government from originally putting the negroes in the field, if it had ever entertained such an idea. But, indeed, no such idea was entertained. They were willing to use the negroes for teamsters, cooks, etc., and did so use them to a considerable extent from the first. Later on, as men grew scarcer, it became the custom to make requisitions upon communities for slaves to work upon fortifications and upon government farms, in the salt-works, powder factories, nitre bureaus, etc., but there was no thought of putting them in the field until long after they had been extensively enlisted in the Federal army, and the phrase, “the colored troops fought bravely,” had passed into a proverb.
In fact, the Confederates had no sort of opinion of the bravery of the colored troops, and even at the last nothing but sheer necessity drove them to think of the race as food for powder. In the Richmond Examiner, in 1863, at the time the colored troops began to be sent to the field in the Federal forces, there was a very bumptious burlesque of the negro soldiers’ bill, the favorite measure of Thad. Stevens. The editor said, in that high and mighty style which was peculiar (happily) to this sheet alone:
Enlightened Europe may turn from the sickening horrors of a servile insurrection, invoked by the madmen at Washington, to a phase of this war, as it will be waged next summer, which, when depicted with historical accuracy and physiological fidelity, can scarcely fail to relieve its fears as to the future of the white race in the South, and conduce, in no small degree, to the alleviation of any epigastric uneasiness that Exeter Hall may experience in regard to the corporeal welfare of the colored brethren. The fate of the negro, of the white population at the South, and of the Northern army, respectively, will be decided in a brief contest, which will occur about the middle of next June, and which we will describe as gravely and succinctly as possible. On the 1st of April, fifty thousand negroes, who have been previously drilled in various camps of instruction, will be debarked at Acquia creek. But it will require at least six weeks of toil to perform this simple feat. It is at last accomplished. The skirmishers of the grand colored division are thrown out. They deploy.
The voice of an overseer calling hogs is heard in a distant field. They rally in the reserve. No rebels being visible, they are again thrown forward. They feel for the enemy, but he is not to be felt. They fire at nothing, fifty feet in the air, and hit it every time. The rebels being thus driven to their earthworks, the grand colored division advances at the pas de charge, singing a Methodist refrain, to storm the enemy’s position, and to carry the crest at all hazards. Of a sudden, the artillery of A. P. Hills command belches forth a hurricane of shell and shrapnell. There is a rising of wool, as of quills upon the fretful porcupine, under the caps of dusky brigadiers and sooty major general; there is a simultaneous effusion of mellifluous perspiration from fifty thousand tarry hides; there is a display of ivory like fifty thousand flashes of lightning; fifty thousand pairs of charcoal knees are knocking together at the self-same moment a scattering, as if all the blackbirds, crows, and buzzards in creation had taken wings at once. To a man the Northern army lies prostrate in the field, asphyxiated by the insufferable odor bequeathed to the atmosphere by the dead, departed host. For a like cause, the rebel army is in full retreat to Richmond. Solitary and alone, with his nose in his hand, A. P. Hill surveys the silent scene.
The Examiner to the contrary, notwithstanding, the negroes stood fire pretty well, and made tolerably good subsidiary troops in the Federal army-much better than ordinary militia-and they did most valuable work by enabling the veterans to be concentrated for important services. The Confederates found this out, and, after being made very angry at being confronted with their own slaves, and being shot down by them, they fell to thinking the matter over very seriously.
I cannot discover exactly when it was that the idea of enlisting negro soldiers in the Confederacy was first broached, but I find the Mobile Register, before the middle of October, 1864, claiming that “a year ago” it had referred to the important reserve power of resistance which the Confederacy would be able to call upon in the last extremity, in the persons of its slaves. The Register says the subject “is now actively discussed.” It does not consider that the time has yet arrived for such a step, and, anyhow, it was too late in the season to undertake such a thing then. But the policy of the government ought to be settled in regard to the matter, and preparations made for the next campaign. And from the date of this article the matter came to be generally discussed, and there was a rapid revolution of public feeling on the subject. At first everybody was extremely hostile to such a movement, and the soldiers particularly. But three or four circumstances combined to make a rapid change in the public sentiment. In the first place, by an act of the Confederate Congress, approved February 17th, 1864, there were some thirty thousand or forty thousand slaves drafted into the army as cooks, teamsters, trainsmen and the like, and the soldiers found that they -not only got along very well with Cuffee, but that he saved them no end of work and trouble, was handy, amiable, liked the service well enough, and was not without a spirit of adventure. Some of the negro teamsters did a little amateur fighting now and then, and they showed themselves very skillful in plundering a battle-field.
Slavery, too, was on its last legs as October rolled by. The enemy had possession of more than half the Confederate territory, and wherever they marched they set the negroes free. Slaves had lost their market value even in Richmond, where, when sugar was selling at from eight dollars and a half to eleven dollars and eighty-seven cents per pound, coffee at twelve dollars, tea at forty-two dollars, bicarbonate of soda at five dollars and thirty-seven cents, flour at three hundred and fifty dollars, and a china dinner and tea set brought two thousand four hundred and fifty dollars at auction, good, likely negroes brought only from four thousand five hundred dollars to six thousand dollars. (Richmond Sentinel, October 28th, 1864.) This, in gold rates, and estimating flour at six dollars per barrel, would make negroes only seventy-five dollars to one hundred dollars apiece, or about one-tenth their price at the beginning of the war. People saw from this heavy discount that slavery was doomed, and a good many patriotic planters were quite willing to sell their slaves to the Confederate Government, and take their chances in Confederate States bonds in preference to negroes. Another thing was that of the Confederate Congress that met at Richmond for the last time in the second week of November, 1864-(it adjourned sine die on the 17th of March, 1865)-more than half the members represented constituencies in which slavery was practically rubbed out by the war process. The Senators and Representatives of Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, and parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, knew that their constituents’ slaves were gone, and they had no particular reason for wishing to save the slaves of other sections yet uninvaded by the enemy.
Still, although the question began to be debated actively, and the army showed itself in favor of the movement, there was no concerted serious attempt to concentrate public opinion in regard to it until the latter part of October, 1864. Two events at that time suddenly waked the Confederates to the gravity of their situation. Sherman began his march to the sea, and the elections in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania showed the rebels that McClellan was certain to be defeated for the Presidency, and that Lincoln would give them four years more of war unless they surrendered. The Confederates hoped much from McClellan’s election; they were sanguine that be would be elected, and their disappointment was proportionately great. The march of Sherman in the same way showed them what Grant had several times insisted upon, that the Confederacy was like an empty egg-shell-all its powers of resistance had been drained to keep the frontier line strong.
From this time forth, then, even the most sanguine began to lose all hope, and those who still believed in a successful resistance knew that it could only be made by a consecration of every possible resource of the country to that one object. Hence the idea of employing slaves as soldiers immediately began to take shape and proportion, and the agitation of it became active and unremitting. The people of Richmond had become acquainted with the negro in a semi-military capacity since the passage of the act of February 17th, 1864, 46 to increase the efficiency of the army by the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities.” Under that act there had -not only been large enlistments of negroes for camp duties and cooks, teamsters, etc., but there were also heavy requisitions made upon the surrounding country for slaves to work upon the fortifications. These, when drafted, were organized into large gangs, and quartered in and around the city, under military discipline. In the early morning these gangs used to be marched through the city on their way to their work on the fortifications, shouldering their picks and shovels, and trotting along at a regulation step. They are fat and saucy and greasy, full of laugh and song, and they kept step instinctively as they sang their own versions of “Dixie” and “John Brown’s Body,” rapping, castanet-wise, upon the pavements with the wooden soles of their huge and shapeless canvas shoes. Many a Richmond mother, as she heard the bacon-colored gangs clatter by her door, thought of her own ragged, half-starved boy in the trenches at Petersburg, and said to herself : “If the cause demands him as food for powder, why not send out these for the Yankees to shoot at, also?”
Butler, at this very time, had ten thousand -Virginia negroes at work cutting his Dutch Gap canal, about which the Richmond people gave themselves much needless excitement, since they might have known that the more nearly the doughty General’s works approached the point of completion (and of danger) the more it would be sure to flag. But the thought must have occurred to many at Richmond that, if Butler could employ these ten thousand negroes to cut a way into Richmond for him, what sort of paralysis was it that prevented the Confederate Government from equally employing ten thousand or fifty thousand negroes to keep him out of that city? A sure sign that this question had then begun to ferment actively in the public mind, may be got from the fact that at this time “the opposition ” opened fire against the enlistment of negroes. The Holden party in North Carolina, and their Raleigh organ, the Standard, the ultra States’ Rights party, represented by the Richmond Examiner and Charleston Mercury, by Wigfall and obstreperous Congressmen like him, and the pure obstructionists, like Henry S. Foote and Governor Brown, of Georgia, and, in a lesser degree, Alexander H. Stephens, began to murmur and denounce. If the Confederacy, they said, could not be saved except by much means as these, it was not worth saving. To which the natural reply of the administration party was that, if the Confederate people preferred to give up their liberties sooner than give up their slaves, the cause was practically hopeless. The enlistment party, in fact, as the opposition knew, contemplated a step further. They were willing, sooner than be subjugated, to abolish slavery entirely, and ask to be restored to the old colonial relationship to England, provided that country could not otherwise be induced to recognize the Confederacy. This, probably, was a dernier resort, which President Davis would have unflinchingly contemplated; but he had no sooner broached the subject in the Richmond Sentinel than the storm of indignation with which it was received showed him his mistake, and no more was said about it, except by the anti-enlistment party in the Confederate Congress, who made use of it in their steady antagonism to the administration policy.
It must be said, however, in justice to the Confederate people, that the social difficulties of the negro enlistment problem engaged their attention much more deeply than the probable monetary losses. An article on this subject in the Sentinel of November 2d, copied from the able Lynchburg Republican, put this side of the case very strongly. We cannot ask these negroes to fight for us, it in substance said, unless we give them their freedom; but that involves the freedom of their children and families also, and so we not only abolitionize the country, but convert it into a sort of free-negro paradise, with the bottom rail on top-for the negroes, if we succeed, will be the saviors of the country. “Instead of being a war for-the freedom of the white man, it will degenerate into a war for the freedom and equality of the slaves.” It would be better, the Republican argued, to accept Lincoln’s than this sort of abolition.
Nevertheless, the die was cast. The army could not be recruited any more, owing to the apathy and discontent of the people, and General Lee, it is now known, said the cause was lost unless he was efficiently reinforced before the winter ended. The Confederate Congress met on Monday, November 7th, at noon, and as soon as it was organized the message of President Davis was received. In this paper, admirably written, with characteristic courage and directness he met and stated the question of the hour. Referring to the act of February 17th, of the previous Congress, which, he said, was less effective than it was expected to be, he remarked: “But my present purpose is to invite your consideration to the propriety of a radical modification in the theory of this law.” The slave, he said, was to be viewed, not only as property, but as a person under the law. His services to the State increased in value in proportion as he became a veteran. For this lie should be rewarded, as well as his master. He would not advise anything further just now than the equitable determination of these relations. He was opposed, at present, to the general levy and arming of slaves as soldiers. “But should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation, or of the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what then should be our decision.” In the meantime, he would recommend the training of forty thousand negroes for duties under the act of February 17th. This message, in which the duty of the State to the slaves as persons was fairly, and fully, and ably stated, opened the whole question at once, and henceforth the history of negro enlistments is recorded in the proceedings of the Confederate Congress and the State Legislatures. The soldiers in the different camps, as soon as the question was agitated among them, gave it their hearty approval, and adopted resolutions to that effect. The poor fellows were so hard bested that they welcomed any measure which Promised them a modicum of relief.
Hon. James A. Seddon, Secretary of War, in his report, supplemented Mr. Davis’ message with some still stronger recommendations of his own. The slaves, he said, had even a stronger interest in the victory of the Confederates than the white people. The latter risked their political independence, but the former their very existence as a race. If the cruel enemies of the South should triumph, they would extinguish the negroes in a few years, as they had already extinguished the Indians. He recommended that the States which had absolute and exclusive control of the matter, should legislate at once with a view to the contingency of negro enlistments. On the next day, in the Confederate Congress, Senator G. A. Henry, of Tennessee, and Representative Wickham, of Virginia, introduced bills to extend and perfect the operations of the act of February 17th, 1864.
The opposition now began to take the field, alarmed at the progress which the matter had already made in public opinion. The Raleigh Confederate, in a dispassionate article, praises the proposed enlargement of the teamster enlistment, temporizes in regard to the constitutional and organic question, but opposes peremptorily the negro soldier enlistment programme. Governor Vance, of North Carolina, in his annual message to the Legislature of that State, took strong ground in opposition to the measure. The thing was totally inadmissible, be said. It was opposed to the theory of the Southern government, and was inexpedient and unwise beside. It may be remarked here, that there were, all along, in the South, two parties, and two sets of opinion in regard to the war, and the conduct of it-one party, of which Mr. Davis was the representative and leader, looking upon it as a social revolution and a struggle for existence; the other, represented by Mr. Stephens, Mr. Henry S. Foote, Mr. Vance, and many others, regarding it rather as a political movement. In the view of the former party, any means to promote the success of the cause which was so vital, were admissible; but the latter party were disposed to measure the means they employed for resistance by the rule of expediency. The former, as soon as the case grew to be desperate, wanted to arm the slaves, or resume colonial dependence; the latter, as soon as independence eluded their grasp, proposed negotiations, and wanted to “settle” the thing by peace congresses, or even by submission according to protocol. The distinction here made should be carefully noted, for the Confederacy was finally broken to pieces upon this rock. Mr. Davis carried his point of war at any price, and his opponents henceforth bent their united energies to paralyze his exertions. He was not the wisest of politicians, nor the best of generals; but his sincerity and intensity of purpose elevated him far above the half-hearted people around him as a promoter of vigorous, and, consequently, successful war. In spite of his patronage of Bragg and Hood, and his opinionativeness generally, it is tolerably certain that, if Davis had made himself dictator, he would have been able to carry on the war for still another year.
There had. been already, some weeks before the meeting of the Confederate Congress, an important conference of the governors of the different States, at Augusta, Georgia, October 17th, at which the subject under consideration had been freely discussed, but without positive action. Governor Smith, of Virginia, in his message to the Virginia Legislature, December 7th, now took the ground that the time had come to put the slaves in the field, and to sacrifice slavery to the cause of independence. The slaveholders should take the initiative in this, in order that people might no longer say, as they had been saying, that this “was the rich man’s war;” and Governor Smith gave plenty of other good reasons why the negroes should be made soldiers of. The Sentinel of the 10th quotes, with approval, the remarks of the St. Louis Republican upon the language attributed to Lincoln, that the war could not be carried on “according to Democratic arithmetic,” “then, if the rebels put two hundred and fifty thousand slave negroes in the field, they cannot be conquered, according to Mr. Lincoln’s arithmetic.” Senator Hunter, of Virginia, who was constantly and throughout opposed to the policy of negro enlistments, introduced a bill into the Confederate Congress, on December 9th, to regulate impressments. On the same day, Governor Bonliam, of South Carolina, sent his message to the Legislature of that State, in which lie denied the authority of the Confederate Government to enlist slaves, as well as the expediency of such enlistments. The “reserved rights of States” played a big part in these last days of the Confederacy, when all who valued their persons or their property more than they did the “cause,” were sedulous to contrive means to save them.
Events, public opinion, and the newspapers, meantime, moved much more swiftly than the Confederate Congress. The limits of the Confederacy were being narrowed continually by the Federal arms, and there were great and bitter dissensions at Richmond, and throughout what was left of the Confederacy. The politicians wrangled, the contractors robbed, the government was helpless, the soldiers starved. The columns of the Sentinel, for six weeks from December 13th, are doleful reading indeed. During this period, Congress approached the matter of negro enlistments in many ways, but never had the courage to grapple with it. There were bills to pay for slaves, to regulate impressments, etc., to create negro home guards, but the bull was never taken resolutely by the horns. But, in the meantime, the dissatisfaction grew, the pressure from the camps increased, the area of the Confederacy diminished, and with the appreciation of slavery as a money interest. On the 28th of January, 1865, the Confederate House, for the first time, went into secret session on the subject of negro enlistments and there the discussions formally began. The proposition was, at first, to impress forty thousand negroes for menial service in the army. On the 30th a proviso, offered by J. M. Leach, of North Carolina (one of the obstructionists), that none of the negroes so impressed should be put in the army, was voted down.
On February 2d, Gholson, of Virginia, in the House, and on the 4th, Orr, of South Carolina, in the Senate (both of them obstructionists), tried, but failed, to carry propositions to the effect that the enlistment policy was disheartening and demoralizing, and would divide the Confederacy. On the other: hand, Conrad, of Louisiana, and Brown, of Mississippi, both introduced propositions which recited the contrary. In fact, as has been said before, the representatives of invaded States were generally for arming the negroes, those of States not overrun for the contrary policy. These propositions were duly referred, and I find that the subject was actively discussed in secret session of both houses on the 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th. On the 9th, the Senate rejected Senator Brown’s enlistment proposition. On the 11th of February there was a great public meeting in Richmond, at which Secretary Benjamin and Senator Henry both spoke in zealous and earnest advocacy of the enlistment programme, and on the 13th, there were two new bills introduced by Mr. Oldham, of Texas, and Mr. Barksdale, of Mississippi, looking to negro enlistments. Senator Oldham’s bill was offered in the Senate, and was not heard of again. In the House, a motion to reject Barksdale’s bill was defeated by a two-thirds vote. This bill provided for the enlistment of slaves by their masters, and did not reward them with their freedom for volunteering-in fact, there was no volunteering about it. They were to be sent to fight the Yankees as they had been sent to work on the defenses.
On the 15th, the subject of enlistments came up in the Virginia Legislature, which, on the 17th, adopted resolutions recommending the enlistment policy. It was not, however, until the 27th that this Legislature voted to instruct its Senators to vote for the measure in the Confederate Congress. The subject was ardently discussed in secret session of that Congress from the 17th to the 25th. In this interval, the soldiers from Mississippi, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, and elsewhere, declared in favor of the new policy, and a letter of General Lee’s was published looking to the same end. In that letter the illustrious commander-in-chief said that he considered the measure “not only expedient but necessary.” If the Confederates did not make use of the slaves the Federals would. The Confederacy was too weak in men to stand long the pressure of war waged in its present tremendous shape. The negroes had the physical powers and the habits of discipline to make good soldiers, and, with proper training, their efficiency would be unquestionable. They would make willing soldiers, provided emancipation was their reward.
In spite of this letter, however, the Senate defeated the measure again on the 25th, but on the 1st of March, Barksdale’s resolution, materially amended, came up in the House and was passed. Wigfall, Hunter, Caperton, Miles, and other leaders opposed the enlistment policy savagely, but, still, when the bill of Barksdale finally came up in the Senate, Hunter and Caperton voted for it, even while speaking against it. The vote in the Senate on the final passage of the bill, March 7th, 1865, was as follows:
YEAs-Messrs. Brown, Burnett, Caperton, Henry, Hunter, Oldham, Semmes, Sims, and Watson–9.
NAYS-Messrs. Barnwell, Graham, Johnson (Ga.), Johnson (Mo.), Maxwell, Orr, Vert, and Wigfall–8.
Thus, the instructions of the Virginia Legislature, by compelling Hunter and Caperton to vote contrary to their opinions, carried the bill through.
This bill enacted that in order to secure additional forces to repel invasion, etc., the President be authorized to ask for and accept from slave owners, the services of as many able-bodied slaves as he thinks expedient; the same to be organized by the commander-in-chief under instructions from the War Department, and to receive the same rations and compensation as other troops. If a sufficient number of troops cannot thus be secured, the President is authorized to conscript three hundred thousand men without regard to color. There is no provision for emancipation or for volunteering, except that the last section says:
That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by the consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, add in pursuance of the laws thereof.
This measure was, of course, ineffective. It did not embody the views of Mr. Davis, nor of General Lee, nor of the Virginia Legislature. It was comparatively useless as a means to reinforce the army immediately, and this was the more singular, since it was now well known in Richmond that General Lee had told the Virginia Legislature that, unless he was reinforced he could not maintain the struggle any longer than the opening of the spring campaign. Nothing can reveal more forcibly the selfish narrow-mindedness and jealousy of the slave-holding interests than this bill.
Still, if there had been time to do it, Jefferson Davis would have, doubtless, conscripted the three hundred thousand negroes which the law empowered him to call for. But there was not time. The House concurred in the Senate amendments on the 9th, by a vote of thirty-nine to twenty-seven, and the bill was promptly approved on March 18th. On, the 15th, the Adjutant General’s office gave authority to Majors J. W. Pegram and T. B. Turner, to raise a company or companies of negro volunteers at Richmond, and muster them into the service. These volunteers were called for under the several acts of the Confederate Congress and the Legislature of Virginia, and every man was called upon to constitute himself a recruiting officer. The rendezvous was established at Smith’s factory, Twenty-first street, between Main and Carey streets. But this call was only made on the 10th of March, and Richmond was evacuated on April 2d, while Lee’s surrender took place on the 9th. The Confederate Congress adjourned sine die on the 17th, and the last issue of the Richmond Sentinel, my authority in these matters, is dated April 1st, when Sheridan had already forced Lee’s lines. Mr. Lincoln, apparently, did not think much of the impressment and enlisting of slaves. He said, in a speech made at Washington on the 17th of March, that the negro could not stay at home and make bread and fight at the same time, and he did not care much which duty was allotted to him by the Confederates. “We must now soon see the bottom of the rebels’ resources.”
We hear not much more of the negro enlistment question. The papers urge the importance of dispatch, patience, discipline. The Twenty-first street recruiting office -apparently got on well, and another office was opened successfully in Lynchburg. A portion of the recruits of Messrs. Pegram and Turner went into camp on the north side about the 27th of March. The Lynchburg papers published a circular of citizens of Roanoke county, pledging themselves to emancipate such of their negroes of the military age as would volunteer to enlist, and, on the 28th, the Adjutant General’s office at Richmond published its regulations in regard to negro enlistments. The provisions were merely formal, and did not vary, from the regulation orders except in one particular: the negroes, as enlisted, were to be enrolled only in companies, under the control of the inspector general, as the government did not contemplate at that time the formation of either regiments or brigades of negroes.
The Confederate negro soldiers never went into action. On March 30th, 31st, and April 1st, the Sentinel reports the enemy “massed in heavy force on our right,” cavalry skirmishes at Dinwiddie Court-House, heavy fighting on our right, tremendous artillery firing, pertinacious assaults upon Gordon, a great battle with no particulars, and then-the curtain descends for good and all, and there is no more Southern Confederacy, much less enlistment of negro volunteers and conscripts to do battle for it.
Would they have fought for it? If enlisted six months earlier would they have been able to turn the tide of defeat? Who knows? Who can tell? People have before now both fought and voted to enslave themselves-people are doing the same thing every day. It is, perhaps, fortunate that the negroes were not enlisted in time to prolong the long agony of the Southern Confederacy.
Source: “Annals of the War” article by Edward Spencer