Desperate for Soldiers, Confederacy Frees and Arms Slaves, But It’s Too Little, Too Late
February 21, 1865. In his review of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War, historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage writes,
“Sparked by a proposal by Major General Patrick Cleburne in late 1863, Confederates spent the final year and half of the Civil War debating and eventually implementing plans to offer slaves freedom in return for military service on behalf of the southern nation. . . . As the military reverses in the western theater mounted and the manpower shortage in the Confederate army worsened, Cleburne and several other officers recognized that the prospects for southern military victory were rapidly evaporating. Cleburne’s proposal provoked strenuous debate in the Army of Tennessee, enough so that Jefferson Davis and his administration dismissed the proposal and suppressed further discussion of it. But by the late fall in 1864, after Sherman’s march through Georgia and Lincoln’s decisive election victory, Confederate leaders reconsidered their earlier opposition to arming slaves and vigorous discussion of the proposal erupted across the South. Eventually in March 1865, after General Robert E. Lee endorsed the proposition and the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia voted on it, the Confederacy adopted legislation to recruit and arm black slaves. The war, however, ended before the tiny number of slaves mobilized under the new policy could be mustered into service on behalf of the slaveholders’ republic. At this late date, the adoption of Confederate emancipation in 1865 had no tangible impact on the outcome of the war.
“. . . Cleburne’s proposal (as well as earlier suggestions of emancipation) were intended either to preserve the institution of slavery, or, failing that, to perpetuate white economic and political control over the South. Imagining a South that would come to be after Appomattox, Cleburne, Lee, and other advocates of arming slaves anticipated that white privilege could be maintained even in the absence of slavery. As long as whites retained political power and ownership of land, blacks would be landless, impoverished and presumably tractable laborers, regardless of whether they were slave or free. Of course, if slavery could be preserved by arming a small percentage of the Confederacy’s bondsmen, so much the better.”
Bottom Rail on Top, At Least Temporarily
February 18. Historian James M. McPherson writes about “the beginnings of a revolution in the South” with regard to race. “The bottom rail was on top, at least temporarily. . . . In February 1865 the First U.S. Colored Infantry occupied Smithville, North Carolina. The Rev. Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the regiment, went to visit one of the leading black women of the town, and while he was there some
white women came into the yard ‘and commenced a jabber about some wood, which the colored lady was appropriating to her use. She told them it was Yankee wood, and not theirs, and the tongue battle raged most furiously for some minutes, when one of the white women called her a liar, with an expression too vulgar to mention. To this the colored woman responded, “I am no more a liar than you are.” This expression, from a negro wench, as they called her, was so intolerable, that the white women grabbed up several clubs, and leaped in the door, using the most filthy language in the vocabulary of indecency. They had not yet observed me as being on the premises. But at this juncture, I rose up, met them at the door, and cried out, “Halt!” Said they, “who are you?” “A United States Officer,” was my reply. “What, we give a negro impudence! We want you to know we are white, and are your superiors. You are our inferior, much less she.” “Well,” said I, “all of you put together would not make the equal of my wife, and I have yet to hear her claim superiority over me.” After that, I don’t know what was said, for that remark was received as such an aggravated insult, that I can only compare the noise that followed, to a gang of [fierce] dogs, holding at bay a large cur dog, with a bow-wow-wow-wow. Finally, becoming tired of their annoying music, I told them to leave or I would imprison the whole party. They then went off, and dispatched one of their party to Head Quarters, to Colonel Barney, to induce him to send a file of men, and have me arrested. But the Colonel, I believe, drove her off, and that was the end of it. I afterwards learned that they were some of the Southern aristocracy.”
Rev. Henry M. Turner Letter to the Editor written February 4 and published February 25, 1865 in the Christian Recorder. Quoted in James M. McPherson’s The Negro’s Civil War, pp. 214-215.
– All entries were submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert