Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“When we arm the slaves, we abandon slavery.”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 30, 2011

In the winter of 1864-65, as the war ground down to its dénouement, the proposal to enlist slaves as Confederate soldiers became an increasingly heated matter of public discussion. While proposals to do so had popped up from time to time throughout the war, it wasn’t until the last winter of the conflict that they attracted serious attention by public officials, and the the ensuing debate was rancorous. Robert E. Lee himself reluctantly concluded that the enlistment of slaves as soldiers was an essential move, and endorsed a plan that would reward men who enlisted under it with their freedom. The Confederate Congress finally approved a plan for the enlistment of slaves — though without emancipation in return for their service — in the middle of March 1865, less than three weeks before the evacuation of Richmond. Too little, too late.

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown (right, 1821-94) was one of several high-ranking public officials who went on record to oppose any such measure, while it was still being debated in Richmond. In an address to both houses of the Georgia Assembly on February 15, 1865, Brown vehemently rejected both the notion that slaves could be made soldiers, and that the institution of slavery could survive the the resulting upheaval of social and racial order. Brown’s address was printed in the Athens, Georgia, Southern Watchman on March 1, 1865 (requires DjVu plug-in):

Arming the Slaves

The [Jefferson Davis] administration, by its unfortunate policy, having wasted our strength and reduced our armies, and being unable to get free men into the field as conscripts, and unwilling to accept them in organizations with officers of their own choice, will, it is believed, soon resort to the policy of filling them up by the conscription of slaves.

I am satisfied that we may profitably use slave labor, so far as it can be spared from agriculture, to do menial service in connection with the army, and thereby enable more free white men to take up arms; but I am quite sure that any attempt to arm slaves will be a great error. If we expect to continue the war successfully, we are obliged to have the labor of most of them in the production of provisions.

But if this difficulty were surmounted, we cannot rely on them as soldiers, They are now quietly serving us at home, because they do not wish to go into the army, and they fear, if they leave us, the enemy will put them there. If we compel them to take up arms, their whole feeling and conduct will change, and they will leave us by the thousands. A single proclamation by President Lincoln – that all who will desert us after they are forced into service, and go over to him, shall have their freedom, be taken out of the army, and be permitted to go into the country in his possession, and receive wages for their labor – would disband them by brigades. Whatever may be our opinion of their normal condition or their true interest, we can not expect them if they remain with us, to perform deeds of heroic valor when they are fighting to continue the enslavement of their wives and children. It is not reasonable for us to demand it of them, and we have little cause to expect the blessing of Heaven upon our effort if we compel them to perform such a task.

If we are right, and Providence designed them for slavery, He did not intend that they should be a military people. Whenever we establish the fact that they are a military race, we destroy our whole theory that they are unfit to be free.

But it is said we should give them their freedom in case of their fidelity to our cause in the field; in other words, that we should give up slavery, as well as our personal liberty and State sovereignty, for independence, and should set all our slaves free if they will aid us to achieve it. If we are ready to give up slavery, I am satisfied we can make it the consideration for a better trade than to give it for the uncertain aid which they might afford us in the military field. When we arm the slaves, we abandon slavery. We can never again govern them as slaves, and make the institution profitable to ourselves or to them, after tens of thousands of them have been taught the use of arms, and spent years in the indolent indulgences of camp life.

Brown’s argument that “whenever we establish the fact that they are a military race, we destroy our whole theory that they are unfit to be free,” mirrors the position of his fellow Georgian, Howell Cobb, who had famously written the previous month to the Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon. “If slaves make good soldiers,” Cobb warned, “our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers.

Brown then went on to reject the “monstrous doctrine” that the Confederate government had the authority to conscript slaves and emancipate them in return for their service, because to do so violated the fundamental right to property of the slaveholders. Such an act would constitute a “taking” of property that violated the most basic principles of the both national and state constitutions:

It can never be admitted by the State that the Confederate Government has any power directly or indirectly to abolish slavery. The provision in the Constitution which by implication authorizes the Confederate Government to take private property for public use only, authorizes the use of the property during the existence of the emergency which justified the taking., To illustrate: In time of war it may be necessary for the Government to take from a citizen a business house to hold commissary stores., This it may do (if a suitable one cannot be had by contract) on payment to the owner a just compensation for the use of the house. But the taking cannot change the title of the land, and vest it in the government. Whenever the emergency has passed, the Government can no longer legally hold the house, but is bound to return it to the owner. So the Government may impress slaves to do the labor of servants, as to fortify a city, if it cannot obtain them by contract, and it is bound to pay the owner just hire for the time it uses them. But the impressment can vest no title to the slaves in the Government for a longer period than the emergency requires the labor. It has not a shadow of right to impress and pay for a slave and set him free. The moment if ceases to need the labor the use reverts to the owner who has the title. If we admit the right of the Government to impress and pay for slaves to free them, we concede its power to abolish slavery, and change our domestic institutions at its pleasure, and to tax us to raise money for that purpose. I am not aware of the advocacy of such a monstrous doctrine in the old Congress by any one of the radical class of abolitionists. It certainly never found an advocate in any Southern statesman.

No slave can ever be liberated by the Confederate government without the consent of the States. No such consent can ever be given by this State without a previous alteration in her Constitution. And no such alteration can be made without the consent of her people.

It’s useful to remember the context of Brown’s address. Brown was intimately tied into the Confederate government at all levels; having held office since 1857, he was the longest-serving governor in the Confederacy. He spoke to the General Assembly in Macon, because the state government had evacuated its usual seat of Milledgeville in advance of Sherman’s army. While Sherman bypassed Macon, he’d left Milledgevillein ruins, cut a sixty-mile-wide swathe through Georgia to Savannah, and even now was marching north into South Carolina. And yet, even in the death throes of the Confederacy, Brown simply could not fathom the enlistment of African American slaves as Confederate soldiers.

Real Confederates didn’t know about black Confederates.


12 Responses

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  1. Tim from Alabama said, on July 1, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Georgia supplied more troops to the Army of Northern Virginia than Virginia. Brown held an influential position with the ruling class. A quick check of census records showed many more family estates that were obviously mega rich in education and property compared to “western” states. Free labor is what made it happen.

    They kept Halleck, Grant and Sherman bottled up near Chattanooga for two years by hard fighting. All those riches were too much of a temptation to keep them out of Georgia in 64′.

    They all got what they wanted just to have Scarlett build a lumber mill so Pork, Mammy and Prissie could be rich house workers again. And so it goes.

  2. Margaret Blough said, on July 1, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Every so often, one sees someone pointing out other cultures that had slave armies without anyone seeing the culture being put at risk & trying to use this as support for the Black Confederates mix. The difficulty with that is that slavery, especially the basis for enslavement, differs wildly from culture to culture. Gov. Brown and Howell Cobb recognized that the rationale for enslaving blacks in a society whose roots began in natural rights philosophy as set forth in the Declaration of Independence could not survive admitting blacks, especially enslaved ones, into the military. This was especially true given how military service was revered in the South.

    I oppose Cobb’s and Brown’s beliefs but at least they were intellectually honest enough to recognize why secession occurred & that, if the Confederacy admitted blacks, especially enslaved ones, to its armies as soldiers, then the South had surrendered.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      I oppose Cobb’s and Brown’s beliefs but at least they were intellectually honest enough to recognize why secession occurred & that, if the Confederacy admitted blacks, especially enslaved ones, to its armies as soldiers, then the South had surrendered.

      There is a very real element of whistling-past-the-graveyard in both Brown’s and Cobb’s vigorous assertion that slaves could not be turned into effective soldiers, even after Union troops had shown otherwise. You’re right; they at least recognized the facade they’d built, and were now doing everything they could to keep it from being tested.

  3. Tim from Alabama said, on July 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Intellectual honesty can also be a self indictment of a lesser character which endeavors to pursue goals outside the bounds of justice and integrity. People of a higher character might have taken on the border state mentality of Washington, Jefferson, Lee and others of notoriety in positions of power and authority in government and the military. The peculiar institution was of course not reconciled with 18th Century western political thought. It was a 16th Century throwback to the days of Kings, Queens and empires.

    A more impressive and respectable Georgia leadership would have voiced support for self determination of all the Georgia people with the issue of slavery deferred as it was in 1787.

    An unselfish and honest patriot with real intellect and integrity would have made every attempt to convince the northern electorate the force required to end political debate on slavery was not worth the cost.

    After the first thousands died there was too much invested to give up without a military solution through use of force. Southern society and culture was destroyed due to lack of intellectual honesty, in my opinion. The right to self determination could have been won with black soldiers. The north could have elected McClellan to make peace if the south had employed free blacks and slaves in the prosecution of the war prior to the election of 64′.

    The Georgia leadership admitted in their published opinions all the lives and treasure sacrificed on the alter of greed was a foolish mistake. The only thing that justifies such an extreme act of war is victory. To prosecute such an endeavor without going into it with integrity and honesty to the ideals and goals of the people involved is criminally insane.

    It would have been more intellectually honest to admit slavery was a relic that needed to be dealt with politically in a nonviolent way instead of by the sacrifice of a millions for decades.

  4. corkingiron said, on July 1, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    So much here – and so little for the Lost Cause. From his own words, he admits they are economically dependent on the labour of slaves – they can’t even wage war without their work in the fields. He admits that slaves resent the institution, particularly its’ effect on their families, and are apt to flee rather than be conscripted. The line that struck me was: ” that we should give up slavery, as well as our personal liberty ” – the connection between one’s ability to own slaves and their personal liberty is clear. It was that right – even if not acted upon, that made them, in their own minds, “free men”. To sacrifice it – or temper it – even if it meant a possible victory – was unthinkable. Truly the characteristic of a fanatic.

  5. Margaret D. Blough said, on July 1, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Tim-The reason that slavery was not eliminated in a political, non-violent way was the Southern states’ absolute rejection of such a discussion to the point that in the 1830s-1840s, they and their northern democratic allies in the US House of Representatives effectively removed the petition clause from the First Amendment by passing the Gag Rule, refusing to even receive anti-slavery petitions even when they involved DC, which was federal jurisdiction. President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General upheld the destruction of US Mail in the form of abolitionist literature that was directed at WHITE Southerners attempting them to reconsider their support of slavery. A recurring theme in declarations of causes among the rebel states in 1860-1861 was anger that northern states refused to suppress anti-slavery groups and gatherings of their own citizens within their own borders. There is no reason to believe that free states would have refused to enter into such a dialogue to peacefully end slavery nationally since most had ended slavery within their own borders by gradual means. However, there was no need to use force by anyone to end a political debate on slavery in the 1860s since no such debate had ever really existed. Even the decision to “defer” in 1787 wasn’t a matter of high feeling and respectability. The Constitutional Convention came into being because of a belief among many leaders that disunion was inevitable under the weak Articles of Confederation. Delegates from South Carolina and GEORGIA made it quite explicit that, if the provisions protecting slavery, especially the 20 year moratorium against Congress taking any negative action on slave importation from Africa, those states would not ratifiy the Constitution. The other states were not willing to take that risk so Georgia & South Carolina got their way, even though Madison foresaw that slavery would be the most divisive issue between North and South.

    What issue of self-determination do you see existing here? There was no effort by the US government during the antebellum period to do anything about slavery or any other issue inside Georgia or any other slave state. If anything, it was free states who protested that their rights as states were being violated. There were federal efforts to support slavery by through the passage of a fugitive slave law in the 1850s that allowed for punitive measures against free state residents who did not want to be involved in slave=catching and refused access to courts by black persons peacefully residing in those states & claiming to be free if they were accused of being a fugitive slave. Harpers Ferry was in Virginia when John Brown’s attack occurred. Federal troops, under the command of R.E. Lee were sent to suppress Brown’s action. Federal troops were sent into Massachusetts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law under Pres. Pierce. Even if further deferral were possible, it would not have done anything for the self-determination of the enslaved people of Georgia, unless you don’t consider their interests to be relevant.

    The problem was that the issue of slavery never stayed deferred for very long, especially after the delicate balance was overturned by Jefferson bringing a massive slave territory into the Union with the Louisiana Purchase. Any further attempts at compromise were rendered futile by the Dred Scott decision. The only compromises before that were over whether and where slavery could expand & SCOTUS, in Dred Scott, ruled that Congress had no power to restrict the spread of slavery into the territories.

    Secessionists did not consider slavery to be a relic, unless the slave states remained in a Union with a Republican president and, due to burgeoning populations in free states, increasing Republican representation in Congress.

  6. Tim from Alabama said, on July 2, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Margaret-The impasse was never in question. What is in question here is the motivation, and my charge of insanity against the reasoning, of the historic record of political rhetoric presented and offered for topical discussion now.

    The governor of Georgia should have, in my opinion, kept his mouth shut in regard to any perceived notion of intellectual honesty. Honesty is one thing but to be intellectual and politically cunning is to know what to say, when to say it and what not to say when you are in a powerful political position. (Or just a lay person standing on the corner having a discussion with Billy Bob.)

    Instead, in my opinion, the governor should have been leading by advocating winning the war through any possible means if they were attacked by Lincoln and Halleck. Speaking publicly in that way about an archaic institution outlawed by the British Empire and most of the rest of the civilized world for years was poor judgement at least and not at all conducive to winning a protracted military struggle.

    The nonviolent approach mentioned previously is a suggestion of internal policy by an independent southern legislature(s) outside of and separate from policy established by northern legislatures. Either before 1861 or after 1864 upon the potential successful prosecution of a war.

    Maybe I did not make that clear in the previous post.

    I am contending further deferral could have meant everything to the disenfranchised and everyone else in general.

    In this type of discussion participants are quick to judge how things might have turned out differently based on what actually happened. I contend people who reasoned like certain pontificating political types in the Peach State would have been better served to wait until 1863 before making a poor decision that boxed them into a corner when it came time to send in the extra troops needed to prosecute the madness successfully.

    It is a given there were no negotiations or opportunities for a non violent solution to a conversion from an expense free labor economy while both sides were intent on killing each other. We were talking about a governor of a state addressing his constituency. We are not talking about the Missouri Compromise. We are talking about winning or losing a major war. There is no place or hope for political solutions to slavery after the first shots are fired unless the people with the obvious problem win the military conflict by force or political accommodation.

    • Margaret D. Blough said, on July 3, 2011 at 7:21 am

      What you refuse to accept is that slavery was NOT regarded as an outmoded and archaic institution by most of the leadership class even as the war ended. That is why secession was the response to the uncontestably legal election of a Republican as President in 1860. Georgia seceded on January 19, 1861, 2 1/2 months BEFORE Inauguration Day. There were a very few people in the rebel states who advocated waiting and seeing what happened after Lincoln took office. They were ignored.

      What you discuss and propose bears no resemblance whatsoever to what actually happened.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 3, 2011 at 10:07 am

      I have to agree with Margaret on this one. As I mentioned in a response on a different post, the argument that the institution of slavery archaic and outdated, and so would have gone away quietly, on its own, without significant bloodshed, is a “what -if” rationalization postulated lost after the war ended. It’s been repeated so often, and for so long, that it’s taken as fact in some circles. But it’s still a hypothetical what-if that needs to be challenged. I’ve yet to see where any prominent, respected Southerner was making that claim publicly prior to secession. Indeed, the act of secession itself showed just how far the Southern states were willing to go to protect and even expand it.

    • Dennis said, on July 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

      In my limited and maybe misreading of Tim’s points, I think he overlooks the elephant in the room – the overwhelming reason the Southern States seceded from the Union and started the war was to protect and enlarge slavery. That last point is even more relevant to undermining anyone’s belief that slavery would have died out soon after the 1860’s. Most Southern elites wanted to conquer more territory and enlarge slavery. Their very constitutions were written explicitly to incorporate these very points. Rereading history is fine but trying to deny what was written by the very Southern’s who so aggressively and willingly ignited/guided (but rarely fought in) that bloody conflict to not just keep humans enslaved for their own economic well-being but also, overlooking or refusing to acknowledge/understand that they were hell bent on enlarging to make it stronger is missing the very point these slavers were making – that this was their way of life and more remain so reguardless of the cost in other people’s lives. Failure to see this point is ignoring the elephant entirely after it steps on your feet.
      While it is a fact that the Southern elite wanted slavery in all its horror as long as it paid for their own wealth/lifestyle, its also true that the North never really cared about the issue until it became a rallying point only well after the war was going – for the North, it was more about economics which the Union provided for their wealthy – reconstruction after the war of Southern aggression (ok, I am using that term up for fun) was the perfect example of this fact – the North never really cared about the state of blacks in the south before, during and after the civil war (by the vast majority of Northern whites, for the most part.) Still, that does not change the fact that for the South, it was and always was about slavery. Or as I read the books by people who know far more than I.

  7. Tim from Alabama said, on July 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Both of you may know history speaks for it self without restating the obvious every time you are challenged.

    21st Century thought does not always apply to the 19th every time you feel like pontificating about the ills of slavery. Slavery is alive and well today in many countries across the globe, in case you did not know that.

    Slavery is an archaic institution. It was an archaic institution in 1860. It has always been an archaic institution. Obviously not for some but that is their problem. I do not expect to change evil into good alone.

    What some greedy landowner thought had nothing to do with what I said. I do not care what the old dead confederate thought anyway. He was wrong about the use of blacks to win the war. That was the point. End of thread.

    Pardon me if I do not have a nervous break down over the fact he was a brain washed devil possessed racist. Must have been some of the old handy stereotypical “Lost Cause” trigger word response when people who do not join in with all the crying and moaning about bad old racist slavers.

    You seek to paint the south with a broad stroke in much the same way whites stereotyped blacks. In my opinion, you want them all to be like Governor Brown so you can shout from your soap box. When in reality most could not read and write or could have cared less about politics.

    I have not seen one article on this site about Civil War battle tactics and strategy. All I see is apologetics about 19th Century America.

    I do not honestly believe you are serious about slavery surviving into the 20th Century without war. If you did you would say so instead of referring to what many do believe. I believe you know the drill and refuse to deviate from the format.

    You referred to white guilt already. I do not believe you feel guilty. I do believe you feel like it would be a mistake to take a chance on anyone feeling like you were not apologetic for what your ancestors did. Dead confederates or not. That is where you came from. You are not responsible. Calling them dead does not change anything. History is what it is.

    • Dennis said, on July 4, 2011 at 10:15 am

      As I said, maybe I was not clear on your post. Still, many people today claim the civil war was not about slavery – it was fundamental from the South’s point of view and this caused/drove the conflict to such a bitter end – simple fact. This point is not just relevant but is critical to understanding the war or all else about the war (for the South) makes no real sense. That said, I also think far to many think the North fought to free the slave – that too is a ridiculous point of view and has been carried to the point of brainwashing people (me included until I read about reconstruction and its massive attempt by the North to overlook the continued war Southerns fought against the legal rights of Blacks.)

      If you think Mr. Brown was some type of devil or brainwashed then you do not understand history in content.

      By the way, the issue of slavery today or during WWII for that matter does not belong here since this is a civil war topics blog. As for military tactics – what do most people or historians really know on that subject? Most – little or worse, total ignorance offered as expert knowledge. For instance, for far too many years most historians treated Lee like he was the second coming but facts show the truth is far, far different – this demonstrates how poor even experts can be – historians and even military trained types so often foolishly overlook most of Lee’s rather poor generalship (I guess this could be attributed to the fact that the world today is a poor training ground to really understand 1860’s strategy or the thinking by most of the officers during that time frame.) For that matter, most experts today are a total joke – see the cake walk we were gonna ahve in Iraq, or missing the obvious fall of the USSR – this topic areais one field no one is knowledgeable. We should all just use our expert knowledge of military tactics and pick stocks instead … .

      Your statement that no one is serious about slavery in the 20th century makes no sense – if you are saying this about the South, you didn’t even begin to understand my post; if you are speaking on past abuse during that time frame around the world you are out-of-line and being highly insulting.

      Your statement and totally inappropriate addition of the phrase “white guilt” has no purpose and makes me wonder if you have some other axe to grind rather than serious comment or intellectual exchange on the topic of Southern slavery.

      While most of this post is off topic, your inability to appreciate the insightful and extremely interesting posts Andy Hall has is your lost. I am amazed and he fills in so many gaps (using hard work and detailed reserach – something far too many other bloggers fail to do) that I either wasn’t smart enough to think of your never fully appreciated.

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