The Confederacy’s policy of arming slaves went through fascinating twists and turns. Some individual Southern states, particularly Tennessee, began raising black labor units from the outset of hostilities and this continued throughout the war, although these individuals did not have uniforms. After First Bull Run, General Richard Ewell, then a division commander and later a lieutenant general commanding Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps, suggested to President Jefferson Davis that arming slaves would insure Southern independence. Davis responded that this proposal was “stark madness that would revolt and disgust the whole South.”
Ten days after the Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Secretary of War James Seddon, “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies.” Lee was evolving toward acceptance of black soldiers.
Southern attitudes changed drastically by mid-1863, after the debacle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg. In January 1864, Major General Patrick Cleburne, one of the South’s best division commanders, presented a proposal endorsed by thirteen subordinate officers at an Army of Tennessee staff meeting attended by General Joseph Johnston and his corps and division commanders. Describing the Confederacy’s dire situation, Cleburne noted that while slavery had originally been a major source of strength for the South, the institution had devolved into “one of our chief sources of weakness.” Slavery had proven to be the major stumbling block barring recognition by Great Britain and France. It was now being exploited by the North, who had armed and trained a substantial body of black troops. In his long and insightful proposal, Cleburne observed that arming slaves “would instantly remove all the vulnerability, embarrassment, and inherent weakness which result from slavery.” He observed, “The approach of the enemy would no longer find every household surrounded by spies… There would be no recruits awaiting the enemy with open arms, no complete history of every neighborhood with ready guides, no fear of insurrection in the rear, or anxieties for the fate of loved ones when our armies moved forward… It would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property.”
President Davis ordered the recommendation’s suppression, and Cleburne was killed in the Battle of Franklin in November 1864. Before the war ended, more than 100,000 Confederate soldiers deserted their units, most of them non-slaveholding yeoman farmers worried about the welfare of their families. Lieutenant General John Brown Gordon, commander of Lee’s 2nd Corps, wrote, “We are having many desertions–caused I think by the despondency of our ranks. It is a terrible blow–the defeat of the negro bill in congress–troops all in favor of it–It would have greatly encouraged the army–they are much disappointed at its defeat. What mean the national legislators? We shall be compelled to have them or be defeated–with them as volunteers and fighting for their freedom we shall be successful…”
Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War Seddon and General Lee all had a change of heart. On January 11, 1865, Lee conceded that “military necessity” caused him to recommend arming slaves “without delay.” But bureaucracy does not progress rapidly. President Davis did not sign enabling legislation until March 13 — about three weeks before Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Not surprisingly, even in extremis opinion was strongly divided. One observer declared this was “the last resort of a dying Confederacy; and thus, the sublimest tragedy ended in the most absurd and ridiculous comedy — slaves fighting for their own thralldom; freedmen unworthy of the name; statesmen, so called, who dared not arm and meet the foe.” Just a week before the city fell, a Richmond minstrel show, “Recruiting Unbleached Citizens of Virginia for the Confederate States Army,” lampooned black Confederate soldiers and their white advocates.
On April 2, Lee dispatched a hurried letter to Davis listing twenty of his officers who were willing to command black units. Virginia Military Institute cadets already drilled black recruits, both freemen and slaves, at Camp Lee, near Richmond. On April 4, a courier witnessed a skirmish between a Confederate supply train guarded by Confederate negro soldiers. Reportedly, these troops repelled the first attack by Union cavalry, but were overwhelmed and captured by the second assault.
Clearly, the Confederacy authorization of African troops was a classic case of “too little, too late.” It should be noted that the very notion of arming blacks undermined the basis for the Confederacy’s existence.