Desperate, Confederate Congress Permits Slaves to Serve as Soldiers in Return for Freedom. Says One Opponent: “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
March 13, 1865. As early as January 1864 Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne had proposed that freed slaves be used as soldiers, but the notion had been summarily rejected by President Davis. By the fall of 1864, however, the South’s situation was dire, and some felt that desperate times called for desperate measures. Even in January 1865 there were hold-outs: Howell Cobb of Georgia, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives and secretary of the treasury under President Buchanan, and one of the founders of the Confederacy, opposed the measure, writing to President Davis, “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Nonetheless, on March 13, the Confederate Congress passed and President Davis signed a law permitting slaves to serve as soldiers.
Historian Margaret Wagner adds, “Amid arguments and mutual finger-pointing with President Davis, the Confederate Congress adjourns it[ed] last session on March 18th.”
The military order putting the law into effect was issued March 23, 1865, but only few African Americans were enlisted, and the war ended before they saw combat.
The American Civil War 365 Days, Margaret E. Wagner, pp. April 27, March 18.
Confederate Law Authorizing the Enlistment of Black Soldiers, as Promulgated in a Military Order, Freedmen & Southern Society Project
Lincoln Assesses His Second Inaugural Speech
On March 15, eleven days after his Inaugural Address, President Lincoln wrote to New York newspaper publisher and Republican politician Thurlow Weed that he believed the speech would “wear as well as—perhaps better than—anything I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”
This last comment presumably refers to the following passage: “Both [parties, North and South,] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ . . .”
Lincoln biographer Harold Holzer writes, “One newspaper of the day thought the concluding sentiments [of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “With malice toward none, . . . “] deserved to be ‘printed in gold.'”
Harold Holzer, Lincoln in the Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, as Originally Reported in The New York Times, p. 222.
Freedman’s Bureau Established
On March 3, 1865, federal law established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or Freedman’s Bureau for short. It was created to help both African Americans and Southern whites who had been displaced or impoverished by the war. It distributed food and clothing; provided medical care; oversaw a school system for former slaves; helped reunite lost family members, and more. The Freedman’s Bureau was established for one year, but it quickly became clear that its work would be more difficult than had initially been thought due to the establishment in the South of Black Codes that placed stringent restrictions on African Americans’ freedom and forced them to work for low wages. Their purpose and effect was to maintain white supremacy. When, in 1866, Congress renewed the charter for the Bureau, President Andrew Johnson vetoed it, and Congress failed to override his veto.
– All entries were submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert