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.