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THE QUESTION OF ARMING THE SLAVES
IN the civil history of the Confederacy, the last important issue was, inevitably, the mode of reinforcing Lee. The government was at its wits' end but some plan of reinforcement had to be formed. During the winter of 1864-1865, the advance of Sherman was paralleled at Richmond by the growth of a realization that the worst had come, and that desperate remedies-even the last word for desperation-must now be tried. A variety of schemes-not excepting a dictatorship on the Roman model-merged gradually in the absorbing question: Shall we arm the slaves?
What appears to have been the earliest proposition to do so was made in the summer of 1863.1 It was then considered unpractical, The exigencies of Johnston's army caused a revival of the scheme in the following year. A council of officers, while the army was encamped at Dalton, considered and rejected it. Throughout the year 1864, the subject was a matter of general talk-how general it is now impossible to say-and in some quarters at least produced bitter opposition. Two letters preserved in the Confederate Museum at Richmond3 profess to record the sentiment of the army around Petersburg. It is stated in these letters that the army was strongly opposed to the scheme and that many men had declared they would leave the ranks if negroes were enrolled. Another interesting document is a letter from Secretary Benjamin to Frederick A. Porcher of Charleston. It was written late in 1864, and speaks of a ripening sentiment with regard to the enrollment of negroes, advises a campaign of discussion in the newspapers, evades rather than meets certain constitutional difficulties, and adroitly intimates the conditions under which the establishment of a Roman dictatorship might be the only dignified-though highly lamentable -course for the Confederacy to pursue.
Whether this letter is candid or not is a question of interpretation. Certainly it is part of the evidence that Benjamin rather than Davis was author of the scheme. It helps to confirm the impression that Benjamin was practically, during its last stage, the Confederacy's premier, the originator to a great extent of its policy. We shall not
1 Pierce Butler, Judah P. Benjamin, p. 349.
B. S. Williams, "Memoirs of a Soldier in the War between States ", Charleston News and Courier, March 10, 1912.
D. S. Freeman, Calendar of Confederate Papers, pp. 181 and 182. *Official Records of the War, fourth series, III. 959.
be surprised therefore when we find that the opposition to his negro scheme became entangled with a movement to compel his resignation. But this anticipates events.
The first great monument to the debate upon the arming of the slaves is a passage in the President's message to Congress, November 7, 1864.5 This message is often misquoted. Frequently it is said that he asked Congress to give him 40,000 slaves to be used as soldiers, with a promise of emancipation at the end of their service. His actual request was for 40,000 slave laborers. His remarks upon the subject of negro soldiers were as follows:
I must dissent from those who advise a general levy and arming of the slaves for the duty of soldiers. Until our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require and can afford to keep in the field, to employ as a soldier the negro . . . would scarcely be deemed wise or advantageous by any, and this is the question now before us. But should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or of the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.
There the matter rested during the next three months. However, there was wide-spread anxiety on the subject. The Journals of the Confederate Congress, newspaper files, and personal recollections, all confirm the tradition that the subject was generally discussed during the last winter of Confederate history. It parted itself into three distinct questions: Should the slaves be given arms under any circumstances? If used as soldiers, should they be promised emancipation? Should whatever was done-if anything-be done by the Confederate or by the state governments? Because it comprised these three distinct questions, discussion of it inevitably was tortuous, with considerable ebb and flow. Furthermore the whole matter was complicated by a popular suspicion that the President was aiming at dictatorship. Davis urged Congress to clothe him with authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and his enemies construed this request in the most sinister way. In the light of what we now know of the views of his premier, we cannot dismiss the popular guess as lightly as once seemed permissible.
Some time between November 7, 1864, and March 13, 1865, Davis became a convert to the scheme to enroll slaves as soldiers. At what time this happened is still to be determined. On the latter date, however, shortly after Congress had finally decided to allow the enrollment of negroes, Davis communicated to it this criticism:"
"Journals of the Confederate Congress, IV. 258. Ibid., 263.
Ibid., p. 704.
The bill for employing negroes as soldiers has not yet reached me, though the printed journals of your proceedings inform me of its passage. Much benefit is anticipated from this measure, though far less than would have resulted from its adoption at an earlier date, so as to afford time for their organization and instruction during the winter months.
This message made the Senate indignant and "so much thereof as relates to the action of Congress" was referred to a special committee of five, consisting of Orr, Graham, Semmes, Caperton, and Watson. On the sixteenth, this committee reported."
That a law so radical in its character, so repugnant to the prejudices of our people [says the report], and so intimately affecting the organism of society, should encounter opposition and receive a tardy sanction, ought not to excite surprise, but if the policy and necessity of the measure had been seriously urged on Congress by an Executive message, legislative action might have been quickened. The President, in no official communication to Congress, has recommended the passage of a law putting slaves into the Army as soldiers, and the message under consideration is the first official information that such a law would meet his approval.
Nevertheless, newspaper paragraphs printed that winter make it plain that the popular mind had formed the idea long before that a slave army was among the intentions of the government. Apparently the message of November 7 was interpreted as a "feeler" to take the sense of the country relative to a plan already decided upon. That bitter opponent of Davis, the Charleston Mercury, took for granted early in the winter that the President had made up his mind, and was in favor of enrolling slaves. A message of Governor Smith of Virginia, who also appears to have taken it for granted, and who spoke favorably with regard to it, was sharply criticized by the Mercury.10 The defeat of Hood, in the desperate battle of Franklin, caused a natural increase of interest in all schemes to reinforce the army, and a Richmond correspondent wrote the Mercury that as a consequence the question of negro troops was getting favorable consideration." Presently we find Prentiss, the famous editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, making public declaration. that Davis intended to arm 200,000 slaves, promising liberty to themselves and their families.12 It seems hardly fanciful to say that the possibility of this black army hung over the Southern mind, that
dreadful winter, a veritable shadow of despair. A pathetic attempt to lay the spectre was a resolution proposed in the House of Representatives, to cease agitating the subject of employing negro troops, "a measure which has already divided public sentiment and produced much despondency " 13
The agitation gradually gathered strength. Lee aided it with his great influence. In a letter to Andrew Hunter," written during January, 1865, he discussed the situation with admirable penetration and lucidity. Though still holding that slavery under existing racial conditions was the best solution of the problem of black and white in the South, he concluded that military necessity compelled its abandonment. Black troops were needed, and military service must be followed by their emancipation; and that, in time, by a general abolition of slavery. The South must accept conditions and make the best of them. However, Congress did not take definite action on the subject until February, 1865. On the sixth of that month, Moore of Kentucky moved in the House to consider the expediency of empowering the President to call negroes into the field.15 An attempt to table the motion was lost by a close vote.16 The Congressional battle over the enrollment of negroes as troops had begun. Moore's motion was referred to the committee on military affairs.17 The next day, in the Senate, a resolution was submitted, which forms a truly pathetic landmark in Confederate history.18
Resolved, That the Committee on Military Affairs be instructed to report a bill with the least practicable delay, to take into the military service of the Confederate States a number of negro soldiers, not to exceed two hundred thousand, by voluntary enlistment, with the consent of their owners, or by conscription, as may be found necessary; and that the committee provide in said bill for the emancipation of said negroes in all cases where they prove loyal and true to the end of the war, and for the immediate payment, under proper restrictions, of their full present value to their owners.
It is to be observed that this resolution forced the issue on all three of the questions involved. It proposed to arm the slaves, to promise them freedom, and to commit the whole matter to the Confederate government. Davis probably was now prepared to take high ground on all three propositions-also, as it turned out, were three senators, Brown, Henry, and Vest. But the remainder of the senators present, thirteen in all, went against them.19
18 Journals, VII. 526.
14 Official Records, fourth series, III. 1012.
15 Journals, VII. 542.
18 Ibid., IV. 526.
19 Ibid., p. 528.
From the seventh of the month until the tenth, no further action was taken in either house of Congress. During this time the President continued an official silence. Secretary Benjamin, on the contrary, came forward as official advocate of the measure. On the night of February 9, he made his last political address.20 The substance of it may be gathered from a letter21 which he wrote to Lee two days afterward. He had spoken, he said, with regard to the necessity of instant re-enforcement for your army", proposing "that those slaves only who might volunteer to fight for their freedom, should be at once sent to the trenches". The proposition met with "decided favor from the meeting". And then comes the significant remark that, nevertheless, opposition had again gathered strength, and had raised the cry that such a course would disband the army by reason of the violent aversion of the troops to have negroes in the field with them. . If we could get from the army", said Benjamin in conclusion, "an expression of its desire to be re-enforced by such negroes as for the boon of freedom will volunteer to go to the front, the measure will pass without further delay, and we may yet be able to give you such a force as will enable you to assume the offensive."
Why Benjamin was put forward, at this juncture, as the administration spokesman, is a mystery. To be sure he was the chief author of the scheme, but this fact hardly bears upon the question. He was also excessively unpopular. Two entries in the Congressional Journals form an unequivocal record of the hostility he had inspired in Congress. Resolutions introduced into the House, February 15, severely condemned him for recent remarks touching Congress and the army. The resolutions went so far as to call his language "derogatory to his position as a high public functionary of the Confederate Government, a reflection on the motives of Congress as a deliberative body, and an insult to public opinion ".22 A vote on these resolutions showed that a third of the House approved them.23 About the same time, February 13, the Senate divided evenly on a resolution "declaring that the retirement of the Hon. Judah P. Benjamin from the State Department will be subservient of the public interests ".24 It seems safe to conclude that the administration made a blunder in permitting Benjamin's speech.
The Confederate Congress has received so little attention, hitherto, that its inner workings are still unknown to us. A tragic
20 Butler, Benjamin, p. 350.
Official Records, first series, vol. XLVI., pt. 2, p. 1229.
Journals, VII. 582.
Ibid., IV. 550, 552, 553. The phraseology was modified in the course of the