Arming Slaves in Lynchburg and Galveston

I recently re-read Philip D. Dillard’s essay, “What Price Must We Pay for Victory?: View on Arming Slaves from Lynchburg, Virginia and Galveston, Texas, which appeared in a collection of essays honoring the career of Emory Thomas.  Dillard argues that the slave enlistment debate was shaped by a localities proximity to Union military threats.  While Lynchburg was forced to deal with a Union advance in the Shenandoah Valley by late 1864, Galveston remained relatively isolated from the threat of war.  Dillard reminds us that sentiment in connection with the enlistment debate was shaped directly by the perceived threat to slavery.  Residents of Lynchburg eventually came to grudgingly endorse a resolution supporting enlistment while Galveston’s location allowed its residents to consider the threat to slavery and the racial hierarchy in isolation from the threat of war.

One editorial in the Galveston News authored by “Pelican Private” who was stationed in the Galveston defenses caught my attention:

The discussion is untimely and fraught with evil; it engenders panic when there is no danger.  Shall we sell slavery, the legacy of our fathers–a legacy halloed by the best blood of the Caucassian race–to purchase independence: Go to the red fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg and Shiloh…and tell their whitened bones that you are so base, so low, so abject that you are ready to abandon the cause for which they fell.

I have no idea whether this individual was a slaveholder, but I don’t think it matters.  What I find interesting in the account is the difficulty involved in imagining slaves as soldiers.  While the residents of Lynchburg eventually endorsed such an idea we ought not to make the mistake of assuming that supporters eagerly embraced the measure.  In fact, that it came so late in the war suggests just how committed white southerners were to a slave society.  It also reflects their commitment to the concept of the citizen-soldier.  White southerners were obligated to serve their nation because of their status as free men.  Slaves were not simply property, they were not citizens of the country.  Pelican’s editorial must be understood, in part, as a plea to maintain the status of all white men.

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2 comments… add one

  • Andy Hall May 3, 2011

    Interesting stuff. Galveston was blockaded throughout the war, but only briefly in Union hands in the latter part of 1862. (Galveston was the only Southern port mentioned by name in President Johnson’s order formally lifting the blockade in June 1865.) But it, and the rest of Texas, was certainly isolated from the main theaters of the war, and perhaps as a result, there’s an amazing degree of denial about the true status of the course of the war. As late as the end of March 1865, letters were being published calling for massive, multi-column invasions of the North (in one case, arguing this should be done with 200K black troops armed for the purpose), but there were also adamant editorials published during the war condemning the idea of black soldiers, saying (1862) “the policy proposed would be seriously objectionable on the ground of its taking the slave out of his proper position, and the only position he can safely occupy in a slave country,” and repeating an editorial from a Richmond paper in 1864, “the negro has no qualities out of which a soldier can be manufactured. Any reliance on him in that way is sure to bring disappointment and disaster.” Generally speaking, the newspaper got increasingly shrill and fanciful as the war wound down, and it must have come as a tremendous shock to readers to find out just how far gone the Confederacy’s situation actually was by the spring of 1865.

    FWIW, the Galveston papers were being composited and printed in Houston from the early part of the war onward, so that may have had an effect on their editorial style, as well.

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2011

      Thanks for the additional information.

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