February 20, 1865 – The Confederate House of Representatives approved a measure allowing for the recruitment of slaves into the military.
The “Negro Soldier Law” passed after long, intense debate by the slim margin of 40 to 37. Approving such a bill would have been virtually unthinkable a year ago, but now the Confederacy was on the verge of defeat, and desperation pushed the measure through.
John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser, had been urging the enactment of such a law for nearly a year and a half. He had recently written an editorial calling on President Jefferson Davis and Congress to impose “a permanent levy or draft of a certain proportion of the slave population.” According to Forsyth, since the “stragglers, skulkers and absentees” would never return to the Confederate ranks, and since the Federals now had “marshaled 200,000 of our slaves against us,” the time had come to draw from this large manpower reserve in the South.
Davis assured Forsyth that his article was “a substantial expression of my own views on the subject. It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantages or disadvantages of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of our enemy.”
However, many influential southerners were still vehemently opposed to such a move. The fire-eating Charleston Mercury declared: “The freemen of the Confederate States must work out their own redemption, or they must be the slaves of their own slaves.” Robert Toombs proclaimed: “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” And Howell Cobb stated:
“The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you. You can’t keep white and black soldiers together and you can’t trust Negroes by themselves. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
But many of the white soldiers who supposedly would not fight beside blacks had been urging their government to allow blacks into the ranks. The 56th Virginia submitted a petition stating that “slavery is the normal condition of the negro…as indispensable to (his) prosperity and happiness… as is liberty to the whites,” but even so, “if the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to (maintain) our Government, we are willing to make concessions to their false and unenlightened notions of the blessings of liberty.”
In the end, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee helped tipped the scales in favor of passage, as Lee had long supported slave recruitment and believed that blacks could serve as soldiers just as well as whites. Lee had privately written that “we should employ them without delay at the risk which may be produced upon our social institutions.” He then issued a public statement on the 18th, declaring that such a measure was “not only expedient but necessary. The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy… Those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise… to require them to serve as slaves.”
The anti-administration Richmond Examiner questioned whether Lee was “a ‘good Southerner’; that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.” However, it reluctantly acknowledged that “the country will not venture to deny to General Lee… anything he may ask for.”
The House bill did not specifically mandate that slaves who fought for the Confederacy would be freed, but it was generally understood that freedom would be given for service. Proponents of this bill asserted that it would encourage slaves to return to their southern homes after serving rather than go north to take homes and jobs assigned by Federal authorities. Moreover, offering slaves a chance for freedom could negate the Federals’ image as liberators among the world powers, and possibly even open a path to foreign recognition for the Confederacy.
Slaveholders comprised most of the bill’s opponents. They argued that slave recruitment could lead to universal abolition, thus forever ending their traditional way of life which they believed was entwined with the Confederate cause itself. However, considering that less than 250,000 people owned slaves, this “way of life” only existed for a very small minority of southerners. Other opponents doubted the loyalty and ability of slaves as soldiers.
Most southerners acknowledged that slavery was on the path to extinction, regardless of whether the Confederacy gained independence or not. Once this bill passed the House, it went to the Senate, where it failed by one vote. Senate President Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia (one of the Confederate envoys at the Hampton Roads conference) led the opposition, arguing:
“If we are right in passing this measure, we are wrong in denying to the old (U.S.) government the right to interfere with slavery and to emancipate the slaves. If we offer the slaves their freedom as a boon, we confess that we were insincere and hypocritical in saying slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves.”
Despite the Senate’s rejection, this bill would be reconsidered in March, when Confederates were becoming even more desperate.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 555-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 641-42; 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. 834-36; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 471-72