Robert E. Lee on Black Confederate Troops
In the waning days of the Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee disclosed his thoughts on the subject of Negroes as soldiers for the Confederacy.
In the waning days of the Civil War, when desperation drove the Confederacy to enlist Negroes in her army, General Robert E. Lee disclosed his thoughts on the subject of Negroes as soldiers in two remarkable letters to Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell. The letters were written by Charles Marshall, Lee’s assistant adjutant general, but the thoughts expressed are clearly Lee’s. In addition, these letters provide rare insights into the unexpected difficulties encountered by the Confederacy in wresting slaves from their owners to preserve a last, slim hope of a Southern Confederacy.
The original letters are located in the Richards S. Ewell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Hd Qs CS Armies
27th March 1865
Lt Gen RS Ewell
General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 25th inst: and to say that he much regrets the unwillingness of owners to permit their slaves to enter the service. If the state authorities can do nothing to get those negroes who are willing to join the army, but whose masters refuse their consent, there is no authority to do it at all. What benefit they expect their negroes to be to them, if the enemy occupies the country, it is impossible to say. He hopes you will endeavor to get the assistance of citizens who favor the measure, and bring every influence you can to bear. When a negro is willing, and his master objects, there would be less objection to compulsion, if the state has the authority. It is however of primary importance that the negroes should know that the service is voluntary on their part. As to the name of the troops, the general thinks you cannot do better than consult the men themselves. His only objection to calling them colored troops was that the enemy had selected that designation for theirs. But this has no weight against the choice of the troops and he recommends that they be called colored or if they prefer, they can be called simply Confederate troops or volunteers. Everything should be done to impress them with the responsibility and character of their position, and while of course due respect and subordination should be exacted, they should be so treated as to feel that their obligations are those of any other soldier and their rights and privileges dependent in law & order as obligations upon others as upon theirselves. Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden and they should be made to forget as soon as possible that they were regarded as menials. You will readily understand however how to conciliate their good will & elevate the tone and character of the men….
Your obt. servt.
Lt. Col & AAG
Hd. Qts. CS Armies
30th March 1865
Lt Gen RS Ewell
General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 29th inst: and to say that he regrets very much to learn that owners refuse to allow their slaves to enlist. He deems it of great moment that some of this force should be put in the field as soon as possible, believing that they will remove all doubts as to the expediency of the measure. He regrets it the more in the case of the owners about Richmond, inasmuch as the example would be extremely valuable, and the present posture of military affairs renders it almost certain that if we do not get these men, they will soon be in arms against us, and perhaps relieving white Federal soldiers from guard duty in Richmond. He desires you to press this view upon the owners.
He says that he regards it as very important that immediate steps be taken to put the recruiting in operation, and has so advised the department. He desires to have you placed in general charge of it, if agreeable to you, as he thinks nothing can be accomplished without energetic and intelligent effort by someone who fully appreciates the vital importance of the duty….
Your obt servt
Lt col & AAG
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