“Great Fight Over the Nigger in the Rebel Congress”

From the Civil War Era Collection at Gettysburg College

Description: “Robert E. Lee and a southern planter pull apart a slave into two pieces.  Lee states, “I must have the slave or cave in.”  The southern planter states, “Anyhow you can’t have MY Nigger.”  His armies were so depleted in 1864, that General Lee advocated the conscription of blacks into military service.  This was thought to be fundamentally against the ideas of the South, and planters severely opposed the idea causing a political battle in the Confederate Congress.  It was not until 1865 that blacks were conscripted, and even then they did not see any action in the war.”

Comment: Slaveholders resisted the efforts on the part of the Confederate government to conscript as well as impress their slave property.  They resisted, in large part, because they viewed these efforts as a direct violation of their rights as property holders.  In other words, they viewed these efforts as a reflection of a government that had overstepped its constitutional bounds.  The cartoon also places the eventual conscription of a small number of blacks into the army as an act of desperation rather than a measure that conformed to the expectations and assumptions of a slaveholding society at war.  In short, it was a last ditch effort that made no impact on the eventual outcome of the war.

These cartoons serve to remind us of just how far removed the public discussion is from anything approaching a proper historical context.  Thanks again to Vicki Betts for passing along this reference – wonderful image.

10 responses... add one

Hi Don,

What I love about this cartoon is that it focuses us on the essential issue, which is the internal struggle that took place within the Confederacy over slavery and racial boundaries. In many ways this internal debate reflects Genovese’s insistence that we see the master-slave relationship as an ongoing negotiation. That negotiation entered new territory during the Civil War and it is worth examining.

I’ve said this numerous times before, but the problem with this debate is we are too focused on numbers and too little or shoddy analysis of wartime sources.

I believe the Confederacy passed laws early on requiring slaveholders to allow their chattel to work on fortifications and other defenses for the common cause, but few slaveholders obeyed the law.

Which newspaper did that political cartoon come from? The political viewpoint is an important part of the interpretation.

Does this political cartoon also show similar aspects? — http://www.learnnc.org/lp/multimedia/12511

Comment: Loyalists resisted the efforts on the part of the Confederate government to conscripted service. They resisted, in large part, because they viewed these efforts as a direct violation of their rights as United States citizens. In other words, they viewed these efforts as a reflection of a government that had overstepped its constitutional bounds. The cartoon also places the eventual conscription of a [I don't know the] number of Loyalists into the army as an act of desperation rather than a measure that conformed to the expectations and assumptions of a slaveholding society at war.

Ed

The image is from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

I think the key distinction is that slaveowners were defending their property from what they perceived to be an intrusive federal government. Slaves and free blacks were not considered to be citizens of the Confederacy. The individuals depicted in your cartoon and, as a result, were obligated to serve in the army.

Very interesting.

Lee had no choice — his army, he said “was evaporating”. The South had already summoned every one it could– and the desertions were staggering already.

Davis said in Macon, in Sept of 64, that 2/3 of his soldiers had deserted! He said if “just half” would return, the South could not possibly lose.

He was probably right. But desertions after that only got worse. In fact, according to Pollard, Johnston and Beauregard had to talk to Davis like Dutch Uncles — and told him that not only had virtually everyone deserted, but that those who remained simply refused to fight anymore. This is one of the great untold stories of the war.

By the way, drafting slaves in the last weeks of the war (none were ever processed through to serve) is often distorted as ” the South pain Negro soldiers equal pay”, and a host of other absurdities.

Slaves did not get paid — the MASTER did. This was going to work like all conscription of slaves did – pay the OWNER. It’s buffoonery to say the South paid slaves to fight. Probably several hundred thousand slaves were already conscripts in the Confederate Army — but not with weapons, as official soldiers. They were the cooks, drivers, and mostly, they dug massive earth works. Still unwritten, as far as I know, is the role Lee played in the use of slaves to build the massive earth works around Richmond.

Another thing — the Conscription Act specifically said the slaves would still be slaves. Sect 5. That is all Section 5 is –paraphrasing “Nothing in this act shall imply a change in status for the slave” In other words — still slaves.

Often times, you hear they were going to give “freedom” to slaves if they fought. While Clebourne did suggest it– remember, he was from Ireland, and a newcomer. Plus, his fellow officers were so aghast at what he said, they took a vow NOT to repeat it, less he come to disfavor with the leadership.

SOmeone DID “tattle” and relay his suggestion. When it got to Jeffereson Davis, he said “Let no one hear of this”. Not long after, Clebourne was killed in battle. A cynic might wonder if he was ordered into perilous attacks.

On February 10, 1865, the Confederate House of Representatives introduced H.R. 367, with the support of Lee. On February 20, the House passed the bill by the close vote of yeas 40, nays 37 – a majority of three! It was sent to the Senate which differed over it for fifteen days, while, figuratively Rome burned. Non-figuratively Columbia burned and Sherman’s army reached North Carolina.

On March 8, 1865, the Senate amended and then passed the bill to raise black Confederates – by the overwhelming majority of 9 to 8! The House agreed to the Senate amendment (which limited the number of slaves enlisted to no more than 25% of the slaves of any one state) by a vote of 40 to 26.

President Davis took his time and finally signed the bill into law on March 13.

The Army of Northern Virginia had twenty-six days to live.

One of those in opposition to the act was Senator R.M.T. Hunter of Virginia. Robert Hunter had served as United States Representative and Senator, aligning himself with Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs as the “Southern Triumvirate” defending the rights of the South and its institutions. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, he was a co-author of the 1857 Tariff. Hunter supported Breckinridge in 1860, represented Virginia on the Crittenden Committee and finally resigned from the US Senate on March 28, 1861.

In the Confederacy, he served for seven months as secretary of war, then a senator. He attended the Hampton Roads conference with Lincoln (the other Confederate commissioners were Vice President Alexander Stephens and John Campbell.)

Long after the War, he got into a debate with Jefferson Davis over the issue of raising Blacks to serve in the Confederacy and defended his position:

“That my opposition to this bill was some obstacle to its passage I had supposed, but that it was a chief obstacle, I had not imagined. I say this not to avoid responsibility of opposition to that ill-starred measure. I wished I could have defeated it all together, for I regard its approach to a passage as a stain upon Confederate history. It afforded, I believe, plausible ground against them for the accusation of falsehood in professing to secede from the United States Government, in part, and mainly on the plea that it was, by reason of their fear that the party in power would emancipate the negroes in defiance of the Constitution. .. And now it would be said we had done the very thing … without any more constitutional right than they would have had.”

To All,

Very much enjoy the comments and the sources being given in the course of this topic. Thank you all for taking the time and effort to post them here. Always nice to have something new to learn about the Civil War.

Sincerely,
Neil

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