Confederate Slave Recruitment

March 13, 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed a bill into law authorizing the recruitment of slaves into the Confederate armies.

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The bill had passed the Confederate House of Representatives in February, then the Senate on March 8 by a vote of 9 to 8. Two days later, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee requested that Davis approve the measure as soon as the Congress reconciled the final version, stating, “I attach great importance to the result of the first experiment with these troops…”[1]

The law, officially titled “A Bill to Increase the Military Forces of the Confederate States,” contained five sections:

  1. The President be and is hereby authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves the services of such number of able bodied negro men as he may deem expedient for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.
  2. That the General-in-Chief be authorized to organize the said slaves into companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades, under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of War may prescribe, and to be commanded by such officers as the President may appoint.
  3. That while employed in the service the said troops shall receive the same rations, clothing, and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of the service.
  4. That if, under the previous section of this act, the President shall not be able to raise a sufficient number of troops to prosecute the war successfully and maintain the sovereignty of the States and the independence of the Confederate States, then he is hereby authorized to call on each State, whenever he thinks it expedient, for her quota of 300,000 troops in addition to those subject to military service under existing laws, or so many thereof as the President may deem necessary to be raised from such classes of the population, irrespective of color, in each State, as the proper authorities thereof may determine. Provided, that not more than 25 per cent of the male slaves between the ages of 18 and 45 in any State shall be called for under the provisions of this act.
  5. That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation of the said slaves.[2]

Davis expressed reluctance to approve the final measure because it did not grant his request to automatically free slaves volunteering to serve the Confederacy, even though officials generally acknowledged that freedom would be granted to all who served. Davis gave his approval with regret that it had taken so long for Congress to pass the legislation. Debate over this measure had been bitterly intense, but since Lee had supported it, the Richmond Examiner opined that it finally passed because “The country will not deny General Lee anything he may ask for.”[3]

Within a week, a new battalion of white hospital convalescents and black hospital orderlies marched to Richmond’s Capitol Square to the strains of “Dixie” and began drilling. Confederate officials did not intend for these troops to see combat, but only to encourage other slaves to join the cause. However, as Davis noted, Congress had waited too long to enact the measure for it to help the Confederate war effort, as few slaves joined the Confederate armies before the war ended. A further measure authorizing the recruitment of teenagers and the elderly also accomplished little.[4]

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  • [1] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 18003-18023; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648-49, 650
  • [2] http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/march/slave-conscription.htm
  • [3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 18003-18023; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 57106-57107; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 363
  • [4] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 208; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 18003-18023; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 363
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