By December of 1864 it was clear to anyone who cared to see that the Confederacy was fast approaching exhaustion. Union armies under Grant in Virginia and Sherman in Georgia had placed a chokehold on the military resources of the South. But most importantly, after almost four years of bloody warfare, the Confederacy was simply running out of men who could, or would, fight.
As early as January of 1864 General Patrick Cleburne had proposed arming slaves to fight for the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis considered that idea so explosive that he not only ordered that Cleburne’s proposal be instantly and totally quashed, but that every written copy of the proposal be destroyed. (Fortunately for the historical record, one copy escaped).
But now, after a year that saw Sherman take Atlanta and move south from there, and with Grant at the gates of Richmond, discussion of the idea of putting blacks into the ranks could no longer be suppressed.
Virginia governor William “Extra Billy” Smith, in his December 7, 1864 message to the Senate and House of Delegates, put the issue officially on the table for consideration by the state legislature. Here are excerpts of what he said:
[The enemy has] seized our slaves and, in violation of all civilized war, armed them against us.
Under every disadvantage the war has been protracted deep into its fourth year, and we find ourselves looking around for material to enlarge our armies. Whence is it to come? … Foreign countries are in effect closed against us. Recruiting from the prisoners we capture will not, except to a limited extent, supply our wants, and the public attention naturally turns to our own slaves as a ready and abundant stock from which to draw.
This policy, however, has given rise to great diversity of opinion. Some consider it as giving up the institution of slavery. Others declare that to put our slaves in the ranks will drive our fellow-citizens from them and diffuse dissatisfaction throughout the country.
In reply, it is said that this policy will effectually silence the clamor of the poor man about this being the rich man’s war; that there is no purpose to mingle the two races in the same ranks, and that there cannot be a reasonable objection to fighting the enemy’s negroes with our own; that as to the. abandonment of slavery, it is already proclaimed to be at an end by the enemy, and will undoubtedly be so if we are subjugated, and that by making it aid in our defense it will improve the chance of preserving it.
This is a grave and important question and full of difficulty. All agree in the propriety of using our slaves in the various menial employments of the Army, and as sappers and miners and pioneers, but much diversity of opinion exists as to the propriety of using them as soldiers now. All agree that when the question becomes one of liberty and independence on the one hand or subjugation on the other, that every means within our reach should be used to aid in our struggle and to baffle and thwart our enemy. I say every man will agree to this; no man would hesitate.
Even if the result were to emancipate our slaves, there is not a man that would not cheerfully put the negro into the Army rather than become a slave himself to our hated and vindictive fee. It is, then, simply a question of time.
Has the time arrived when this issue is fairly before us? Is it, indeed, liberty and independence, or subjugation, which is presented to us? A man must be blind to current events; to the gigantic proportions of this war; to the proclamations of the enemy; who does not see that the issue above referred to is presented now… I will not say that, under the Providence of God, we may not be able to triumph; but I do say that we should not, from any mawkish sensibility, refuse any means within our reach which will tend to enable us to work out our deliverance . . .
I do not hesitate to say that I would arm such portion of our able-bodied slave population as may be necessary and put them in the field, so as to have them ready for the spring campaign, even if it resulted in the freedom of those thus organized . . .
No one would advocate the policy of thus appropriating our slaves except as a matter of urgent necessity… I therefore earnestly recommend to the Legislature that they should give this subject early consideration and enact such measures as their wisdom may approve.
Even with both the Governor of Virginia and Robert E. Lee himself urging quick action to arm slaves to fight for the Confederacy, slaveowners resisted. It wasn’t until March of 1865 that several companies of slaves were organized and began to drill in Richmond. By then it was far too late for the experiment to even be tried.
Within a month of the time the when Confederates, out of utter desperation, could bring themselves to begin training blacks as soldiers, Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox. At the time of that surrender, there would not be a single duly enrolled black soldier in Lee’s army.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin