Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on December 12, 2010

While going through microfilm looking for something else, I came across this editorial in the Galveston Weekly News, published on September 3, 1862 — several months after the Confederacy’s first Conscription Act, and shortly before passage of the second.

Conscripting Slaves. — The Telegraph of this city [Houston] is advocating the policy of conscripting slaves, to be employed in throwing up entrenchments and performing the other duties of soldiers. We think there are some very serious objections to such a policy. We do not propose to enter upon the discussion of the subject, but would here simply remark that by adopting such a policy we would seem to be following the example of the enemy, and they would not fail to justify the course they are now pursuing in filling up their armies with negro [sic.] recruits, by referring to the fact that we make conscripts of our slaves in order to strengthen our armies against them. The fact of our not putting arms in the hands of slaves, would not deprive their argument of its force, so long as the slaves are employed to the usual duties of soldiers, so that the 100,000 of them the Telegraph proposes to raise, will have the same effect as increasing our military force by just that number of white conscripts. We fear the argument would, at least, be sufficient with foreign nations, to justify the Federals in employing negroes in their armies, in the way they are now doing.

We also think the policy proposed would be seriously objectionable on the ground of its taking the slave out of his proper position, and the only position he can safely occupy in a slave country. We are moreover of the opinion that we have white men enough to achieve our independence without conscripting slaves to help us. And we further believe that our slaves can be much more profitably employed in agricultural, mechanical and manufacturing pursuits, under the supervision f white men. In these pursuits, their labor, if properly directed, will add more military strength to the country, by keeping our armies properly supplied, than by conscripting them.

My emphasis. Note that the editorial here objects to the formal enlistment of slaves even in non-combatant roles — “the fact of our not putting arms in the hands of slaves, would not deprive [the Federals’] argument of its force.” In the back-and-forth about this or that bit of “evidence” for the widespread enlistment of large numbers of African Americans as soldiers in the Confederate Army — much of which is either fundamentally misunderstood, self-contradictory, willfully misrepresented or flat-out fabricated — it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. The very idea of organizing slaves into military formations, under arms, was antithetical to the legal, social and racial fabric that defined the Confederacy and that put the Southern states on the path to secession. There were dissenting voices, to be sure, particularly as the war dragged on and the Confederacy’s military position became increasing perilous. But even in the closing weeks of the war, the very notion of enlisting slaves into combat service remained deeply, fundamentally offensive to many whose devotion to the Confederacy was without question. “Use all the negroes you can get,” Howell Cobb advised the Confederate Secretary of War in January 1865, “for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”

One sometimes hears, when skeptics point out the dearth of contemporary primary sources from the Confederate side that describe African Americans serving in the ranks, under arms, recognized as soldiers by their officers and their peers, that the practice was so commonplace, so unremarkable, that it simply wasn’t commented upon. It’s suggested that the Confederate Army was racially integrated to such a degree no one thought to mention it. Such a claim reflects a deep ignorance — or deep dishonesty — about the most basic reality the Confederate States: it was a nation succinctly, accurately and unabashedly described in the Weekly News‘ editorial as “a slave country.”


5 Responses

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  1. Douglas said, on December 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Edited by moderator. If you want to comment specifically on the post, please do so. But be succinct and stay focused.

    You’ve posted comments like this previously, both here and at least one other well-known Civil War blog, and to each one here I’ve replied, asking you to clarify them. You couldn’t be bothered, so I’m going to have to put the brakes on this. This comments section isn’t really the place for long, stream-of-consciousness essays. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you’ve got your own blog for long-form postings. -AH

  2. Corey Meyer said, on December 13, 2010 at 2:51 am

    Great post Andy…as always!

  3. betweentwowhirlds said, on December 13, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    “it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.”

    I don’t know if it’s because of my reading (and I saw this directly) or that I’m smart enough to have figured it out – but the idea of putting arms into the hands of slaves and then expecting them to defend the state that enslaves them rather than turning those arms upon that state is mind-boggling in its lack of comprehension about slaves as human beings with their own ideas of selfhood and value.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 13, 2010 at 9:33 pm

      That’s part of the psychological underpinnings of the institution — convincing oneself that the enslaved were (mostly) content, loyal and appreciative. There was an entire complex reality, a community, within the black population of the South that was entirely invisible to whites, because they had (of necessity) blinkered themselves from it.

      But if you read Southern papers from the period, it’s also clear that the prospect of a Nat Turner-like insurrection was never far from their minds. Paper after paper after paper contains stories or mentions of suspected slave insurrections/plots/conspiracies, both in the South and across the Americas. And when such things did occur (or were even suspected), they were put down with immediate and brutal violence. I am certain that many a slaveholder lay awake at night fearing such an event, even while assuring himself, “my slaves wouldn’t of course, but. . . .”

  4. betweentwowhirlds said, on December 13, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Reading “Black Rebelllion: Five Slave Revolts” was helpful (and likely the proximate cause of my own enlightenment about the absurd cognitive dissonance).

    There were few slave revolts, and none (obviously) succeeded. Even the ones that did occur were extremely contained and failed within days.

    Yet white slaveowners and their society lived in mortal fear. The story of Turner’s revolt, for example, kept (I believe) the entire city of Richmond terrified. As if that somehow their smooth denial of the discomfort of slaves was known to be a complete lie, and a social delusion that kept them talking about their faithful slaves.

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