Confederate Slave Recruitment

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

The bill had passed the Confederate House of Representatives last month but was defeated in the Senate by one vote. Both Virginia senators voted against the bill. The Virginia legislature then passed its own black military recruitment bill (without offering freedom to slaves who enlisted) and directed its senators to push a re-vote. In the re-vote on the 8th, the bill narrowly passed, 9 to 8. Several senators abstained.

Two days later, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee requested that Davis approve the measure as soon as Congress reconciled the final version, stating, “I attach great importance to the result of the first experiment with these troops…”

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 which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by the consent of their owners and of the states in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.

Adhering to the Confederate Constitution’s protection of states’ rights, Congress deferred to slaveholders and their state legislatures to decide whether to offer freedom to slaves for their service. This fell far short of what Major General Patrick R. Cleburne had proposed in January 1864, and it disappointed both Lee and Davis, who felt that any slave who fought for the Confederate cause should be automatically freed. Moreover, slaves would not be given the choice to volunteer; rather, their owners would hand them over upon request for mandatory service.

Despite these provisions, most officials acknowledged that freedom would most likely be granted to all who served, and therefore Davis ultimately approved the measure. In granting his endorsement, Davis took the opportunity to criticize Congress for taking so long to act on this matter. Davis then wrote to Lee:

“I am in receipt of your favor in regard to the bill for putting negroes in the army. The bill was received from the Congress to-day and was immediately signed. I shall be pleased to receive such suggestions from you as will aid me in carrying out the law, and I trust you will endeavor in every available mode to give promptitude to the requisite action.”

It remained unknown whether slaveholders would be willing to send their slaves into combat. It was also unknown whether slaves would be willing combatants. According to an article in a black newspaper:

“Secret associations were at once organized in Richmond, which rapidly spread throughout Virginia… it was decided with great unanimity, and finally ratified by all the auxiliary associations everywhere, that black men should promptly respond to the call of the Rebel chiefs, whenever it should be made, for them to take up arms… if they were placed in front as soon as the battle began the Negroes were to raise a shout about Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and, satisfied there would be plenty of supports from the Federal force, they were to turn like uncaged tigers upon the rebel hordes. Should they be placed in the rear, it was also understood, that as soon as firing began, they were to charge furiously upon the chivalry, which would place them between two fires; which would disastrously defeat the army of Lee, if not accomplish its entire annihilation.”

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.



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 208;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 545-46; 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 18003-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563, 565; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648-50; 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. 836-37; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 35;; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition, 2012), Q165; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 363

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