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.