November 7, 1864 – The second session of the Second Confederate Congress assembled and received President Jefferson Davis’s optimistic annual message.
Throughout the war, Davis had emphasized the need to defend territory. But after sacrificing several armies while still losing territory, Davis now reversed course. He explained that the loss of Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley gave the military more flexibility by freeing it from having to defend cities or regions:
“The truth so patent to us must, ere long, be forced upon the reluctant Northern mind. There are no vital points on the preservation of which the continued existence of the Confederacy depends. There is no military success of the enemy which can accomplish its destruction. Not the fall of Richmond, nor Wilmington, nor Charleston, nor Savannah, nor Mobile, nor all combined, can save the enemy from the constant and exhaustive drain of blood and treasure which must continue until he shall discover that no peace is attainable unless based on the recognition of our indefeasible rights.”
The message did not mention the U.S. presidential elections scheduled for the next day; Davis avoided making any statement that could push northerners to vote for Abraham Lincoln. Regarding the economy, Davis called the financial outlook “far from discouraging.” He asked Congress for measures to increase military recruitment, including waiving some exemptions from the Conscription Act.
Davis also requested legislation allowing the government to buy 40,000 slaves from slaveholders and use them for military labor for the rest of the war. This would replace the current law allowing the military to impress slaves into service without compensation for limited time periods. As the military would then be expected to teach slaves “in the manner of encamping, marching, and parking trains,” the “length of service adds greatly to the value of the negro’s labor.”
After “service faithfully rendered,” Davis recommended that the slaves be rewarded with freedom. However, since slavery was a state issue, each state would have to decide for itself on that. Davis argued that such a grant by the states “would doubtless be more readily accorded as a reward for past faithful service, and a double motive for zealous discharge of duty would thus be offered to those employed by the Government, their freedom, and the gratification of the local attachment which is so marked a characteristic of the negro, and forms so powerful an incentive to his action.”
Davis was not prepared to accept slaves as combat soldiers, stating, “Until our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require, and can afford to keep in the field; to employ as a soldier the negro who has been merely trained to labor, and as a laborer the white man, accustomed from his youth to the use of firearms, would scarcely be deemed wise or advantageous by any.” However, “Should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.”
Suggesting that slaves could become free citizens in exchange for military service marked what Davis called “a radical modification in the theory of the law.” An editorial in the Richmond Whig countered that trading service for freedom wrongly assumed “that the condition of freedom is so much better for the slave than servitude, that it may be bestowed upon him as a reward.” If implemented, it would be “a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave.”
In conclusion, Davis stated that he was willing to negotiate with the North regarding peace, but only if the North recognized southern independence and not “our unconditional submission and degradation… This is the true path to peace; let us tread it with confidence in the assured result.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 484; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 63-64; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 13076-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 518; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 593-94; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 833-34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 334