I am in the home stretch with Bruce Levine’s wonderful new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. It’s extremely well written and is an excellent introduction to the story of the Confederacy and the central role that slavery played in its ultimate failure. It should come as no surprise that Levine spends a good deal of time toward the end of the book exploring the debate over the enlistment of black soldiers into Confederate ranks. The following two paragraphs address the conflict between the recruitment of blacks into the army and the stated goals of the Confederate government to protect the institution of slavery.
What follows serves as a reminder of how dangerous it is to generalize about what Confederates were fighting for outside of any historical context. This is especially true for those who reduce this complex question to states’ rights.
Some of the measure’s [recruitment of blacks] champions responded coyly to this most fundamental of objections. The editors of two Richmond papers declared that they and the white South as a whole had been fighting not for the sake of slavery but to secure states’ rights and southern independence. “We are told by some horrified individuals,” said the Richmond Sentinel in affected surprise, “that this is ‘giving up the cause.’” But, its editor demanded, just what cause are they referring to? “We thought that independence was, just now, the great question.” “This war is waged for the liberty, independence, and nationality of these States,” the Enquirer chimed in, and it was “for this object only” that “the people have made the tremendous sacrifices of the last four years.” It follows as night the day that “any measure which secures the liberty, independence and nationality of these States is justified and made our imperative duty.”
Davis’s opponents found this claim simply laughable. Yes, they retorted, we value states’ rights. But the purpose of those rights has always been to protect the southern master from interference by a potentially hostile national government. All southerners knew that “slavery–aggressions upon it by the North, apprehensions for its safety in the South”–was the “cause of Secession and that “all other questions were subordinate to it,” one Georgian now reminded his president. “The principle of State Sovereignty” was “important to the South principally, or solely, as the armor that encased her peculiar institution.” They had finally opted for full-scale independence for the same reason–to guarantee slavery’s future. “Of what value is ‘self-government’ to the South,” one Texan demanded, once “the very fabric of Southern prosperity” has been lost? (252-53)
What I find so interesting is that the eventual bill that was passed through the Confederate Congress authorizing the enlistment of slaves into the army was rendered entirely ineffective because individual states and slaveholders held so tightly to their individual property rights in opposition to what they perceived to be an overly intrusive federal government in Richmond. The only slaves that would be welcomed into the Confederate army were those who had been manumitted by their masters and who freely chose to join. In the end, Confederates understood what states’ rights was all about.