I’ve already published an essay on this topic, but since Southern Mythology asserts that some slaves fought for the South, I’ve re-examined the topic with important new insights:
Some things are certain. Many masters or their sons took slaves to the field as orderlies, and in some, probably many instances those slaves actively participated in battle — in self-defense if no other reason. In some rare instances, I believe where the slave could “pass” as white, individuals with black blood may have actually joined a few Southern units. But slavery was the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy’s existence, explicitly enshrined in their constitution and bearing arms contradicted this stance.
What is absolutely certain is that thousands of blacks were conscripted as labor troops to build fortifications on both sides throughout the war. From the outset of hostilities, some individual Southern states, particularly Tennessee, began raising black units, primarily for building fortifications corduroy roads, bridges, and the like. Like the North, the Confederacy went through fascinating twists and changes of attitude towards arming their three and a half million slaves as hostilities progressed.
Immediately following First Bull Run, General Richard Ewell, then a division commander, who later a lieutenant general commanding Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps, suggested to President Jefferson Davis the necessity of arming slaves in order to ensure Southern independence. Davis responded that this proposal was “stark madness that would revolt and disgust the whole South.” When he asked who would command a brigade of negroes, Ewell declared his willingness to do just that. Nothing came of the offer.
Ten days after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect 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.”
Say what you will about this Southern icon’s virtues. but lack of bigotry against blacks was not one of them. If you doubt that, please explain what Lee meant by “if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction.” But Southern attitudes began to change drastically after Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg.
On January 2, 1864, Major General Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant who was one of the South’s best division commanders, presented a proposal endorsed by thirteen subordinate officers at an Army of Tennessee staff meeting convened by General Joseph Johnston. 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 preventing recognition by Great Britain and France. Southern strength 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.
Nothing came of Cleburne’s recommendation because President Davis ordered its suppression, and Cleburne was killed in the Battle of Franklin the last day of November 1864. His fellow division commanders, notably William H. T. Walker, James Patton Anderson, and Alexander P. Stewart, found Cleburne’s proposal “incendiary” “monstrous” and “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” Braxton Brag, then Davis’ military advisor, regarded the proposal as “treasonous” and demanded to know the names of “traitors” who supported the proposal. Many Southerners, if not most, found the proposal odious in the extreme. So tell me how there might have been black troops serving in the field. The Confederates had rejected the Creole militia who had offered their support when New Orleans was about to fall.
As the fortunes of war continued to turn, the Confederate Congress passed “An Act to Increase the Efficiency of the Army by Employing Free Negroes and Slaves in Certain Capacities” on March 11, 1864, authorizing the Bureau of Conscription to draft up to 20,000 slaves to work on fortifications for $11 per month. But as 1865 began, it was quite evident to informed and objective observers that the South’s last days were fast approaching unless drastic measures were embraced. Southern soldiers began to desert en masse as hopelessness soared due to lack of food, clothing, ammunition, and grossly under-strength units, many lacking officers. By the time the war ended, more than 100,000 Confederate soldiers deserted, most of them non-slaveholding yeoman farmers indispensable for the support of their families and concerned about their welfare. Attitudes in the South began to change out of desperation.
Lieutenant General John Brown Gordon, commander of Lee’s 2nd Corps, expressed irritation that the Confederate Congress remained reluctant to take decisive action:
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…If authority were granted to raise 200,000 of them it would greatly encourage the men and do so much to stop desertions. I can find excellent officers to take command of them.
In what historian Ron Chernow described as a “slow-motion unraveling,” Lee’s proud Army of Northern Virginia began to be thinned out by massive desertions equaling roughly a regiment per day. Lee’s army lost eight percent of its strength in January and a like percentage in February. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War Seddon and General Lee all had a change of heart. Lee apparently made the conversion in the fall of 1864. On January 11, 1865, Lee conceded that “military necessity” caused him to recommend arming slaves, insisting that he still “deprecated” any “sudden disturbance of that relation (between master and slave) unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity.” He concluded, “My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay.” His opinion, of course, prevailed.
Use of armed slaves was the most contentious issue the South faced because use of slaves in combat and their emancipation flew directly in the face of the Confederacy’s raison d’ etre. Major General Howell Cobb, the first speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress, declared, “I think the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began…If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Fundamentally, it demolished the myth of white supremacy.
Nonetheless, by March 1865 the South faced an existential crisis. After impassioned debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure authorizing arming slaves by a vote of forty-seven to thirty-eight in the House and nine to eight in the Senate on March 8. Obviously, this was a far from unanimous decision. President Davis did not sign enabling legislation until March 13 – less than three weeks before Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Davis decided to made provision for emancipation, even though the Confederate Congress pointedly had NOT.
Not surprisingly, even in extremis opinion was strongly divided on such a drastic measure as resorting to arming slaves and freedmen. One observer described this as “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 officers (a brigadier, five colonels, four majors, four captains, and six enlisted men) willing to command black units. Virginia Military Institute cadets 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. On the 6th, refugees observed a squad of twelve colored troops throwing up fortifications. They were informed that these were “the only company of colored troops in Confederate service.” And according to many accounts, two companies of slaves and free blacks, possibly medics, were drilled without weapons in Richmond the week before the city fell.
In desperation, the Confederacy resorted to arming slaves and freedmen, but the results made no difference because the Army of Northern Virginia was compelled to surrender at Appomattox on April 9. The Confederacy’s decision to arm enslaved males undermined the Confederate States’ very justification for existence. In contrast, the Union had armed 180,000 slaves, organized into 175 combat regiments beginning in March 1863, and they tipped the war in the Union’s favor. For the South, it was decidedly “too little, too late.”