South tortured by plan to employ black soldiers

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor occurred Dec. 7, 1941, a “date which will live in infamy,” and sometime around mid-1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that for political, diplomatic, coalition and military reasons, “it was of the utmost importance that American forces be in contact with the enemy in 1942.”

We invaded the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in August 1942, but the president was referring to the European Theater, where Great Britain and the Soviet Union were fighting to the death against Nazi Germany.

The result of the president’s decision was Operation Torch, the American invasion of North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942. The president’s call was the action of a strong wartime leader, the head of a strong government.

I mention this in regard to an e-mail I received from Bill Hurlebaus of Marion, Va., who asked two great questions: 1. “Did any African-Americans (not including orderlies or slaves of high-ranking Confederate officers) serve in the Confederate military forces?”

Question 2 was about Gen. George McClellan, who “ran as the Democratic party candidate against Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1864. I read somewhere that the platform of the Democrats was to declare an armistice and sue for peace with the Confederacy. … How serious was this movement and did McClellan support this platform?”

The issue of slave soldiers in the Confederate Army exposes the inherent weakness of both Confederate leadership and the built-in weakness of the Confederate government.

Manpower was always a challenge in the Confederacy. The huge land mass, the extensive river network, the enormous coastline, the Confederate heart were all Southern advantages, but the population difference was a killer: 22 million from the North faced about 9 million (of whom more than 3 million were slaves) from the South.

Thus, battle casualties were an ever-present problem for the Confederacy: How soon would the South run out of men to fight the war? As early as July 1863, following the defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the issue of using slaves as soldiers began to form.

Newspapers in both Mississippi and Alabama wrote articles about how “the enemy is stealing our slaves and converting them into soldiers. … It is better for us to use the Negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us.”

The papers admitted that this step “is revolting to every sentiment of pride and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war,” but we are “forced by the necessity of our condition.”

The Jackson Mississippian felt that using slaves as soldiers, “would revolutionize our whole industrial system and perhaps lead to universal emancipation,” but bottom line: “If we lose the war, we lose slavery anyway. … We must save ourselves from the rapacious North, whatever the cost.”

By January 1864, with manpower losses mounting, the same sentiment was beginning to be felt in the Confederate military. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, whom many consider the best division commander on either side during the war, reasoned that the South was losing the war because Union manpower simply overwhelmed the South.

An added reason: “The Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863) had given the enemy a moral cause to justify his drive for conquest … and turned European nations against the Confederacy.”

But the “slave-soldier” issue went to the core of the Confederacy. In his excellent “Battle Cry of Freedom,” Dr. James McPherson discusses the issue of arming slaves: “To most Southerners, such a proposal seemed at best ludicrous and at worst treasonable.”

No less a leader than President Jefferson Davis had called the idea of slaves in the military “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man,” and most Southerners agreed with him. The Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia in August 1831 was never far from the Southern conscience.

Further, the arming of slaves went directly against the way the Southerner had looked at blacks for generations: He always looked at the slave as an inferior, one who needed direction, guidance and suppression to fulfill the slave role in society.

But by late 1864, an iota of reality led the governor of Louisiana to admit that “the time has come for us to put into the army every able-bodied” black man as a soldier.

The governors of six other Confederate states also urged the “impressment of slaves for the public service as may be required.” But in an exquisite example of political fence-sitting, when these six governors were challenged, all but two of them denied that they meant to actually arm the slaves.

In November 1864, Davis urged his “Congress to purchase 40,000 slaves for work as teamsters, pioneers and laborers with the promise of freedom after service faithfully rendered.” But neither the Congress nor the press would accept the idea.

Reality and necessity had come square against the weakness of the Confederate Constitution: The national government could ask the individual states for cooperation, but it could not order.

By February 1865, Davis reduced the issue to this: choosing whether blacks “shall fight for us or against us.”

The only important Confederate leader who had not yet weighed in on the matter was Gen. Robert E. Lee himself. In February 1865, he sent a letter to the congressman who had sponsored a bill that would have allowed blacks to become soldiers.

Lee urged passage of the bill: Blacks, “under proper circumstances will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy. … Those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise … to require them to serve as slaves.”

But Lee ran smack into the thinking of a Mississippi congressman, who in January 1865, after Gen. William Sherman had marched through Georgia and Gen. Ulysses Grant held both Richmond and Petersburg under siege, could still proclaim: “Victory itself would be robbed of its glory if shared with slaves!”

Lee’s approval of the concept was barely enough to carry the day. In deference to States Rights, the bill as passed by Congress did not mandate freedom for any slaves who served.

Thus, the Confederacy had neither the strong wartime leader nor the strong wartime government required to win a war.

This old veteran considers the United States blessed that we had the fine leadership and government we had in 1941.

As for the waning days of the Confederacy, time permitted bare enactment of the bill enlisting slaves into the Confederate military: Two companies of black soldiers were organized in Richmond, but they never were used in combat. And these soldiers acquired their freedom only when Union troops, headed by a black cavalry regiment, marched into Richmond on April 3, 1865.

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