*Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign*: Preliminary Thoughts

For obvious reasons I’ve been looking forward to reading Philip Dillard’s new book, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves (Mercer University Press, 2017). I spend a little time in chapter 2 of Searching For Black Confederates tracing the broad contours of the debate throughout the Confederacy over whether to arm slaves as soldiers in 1864 and 1865. For that I rely heavily on the scholarship of Bruce Levine, Robert Durden, and a piece by Dillard that appeared some years ago in a volume of essays in honor or Emory Thomas.

Having just finished reading the book I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts. I will write up a formal review for Civil War History by the end of the summer.

Dillard’s argument is straightforward and even, prima facie, a convincing one. By comparing how the public debate evolved in Virginia, Georgia, and Texas Dillard argues that support for slave enlistment depended on the proximity of the Union army. In places like Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia as well as central Georgia – along the lines of Sherman’s March – President Davis’s November 1864 initial call to consider slave enlistment received more vocal support. In contrast, parts of Texas, including Galveston and Houston downplayed and even resisted such talk. The area remained untouched by Union forces (apart from the presence of the navy off-shore); they were able to maintain trade through Mexico with the rest of the world and their enslaved population remained secure.

Again, the speed at which the positions of individuals evolved in these different communities depended on the local threat posed by the U.S. military and shifting perceptions of the overall Confederate cause into early 1865.

The big concern that I have with this book is the body of evidence employed by Dillard. He relies almost exclusively on newspapers, including editorials and letters-to-the-editor. While newspapers are certainly helpful in tracking changing attitudes regarding slave enlistment they are not sufficient. At numerous times throughout the book the amount of quoting from these editorials becomes overkill.

All of the communities discussed in this book sent soldiers off to war and many of them shared their thoughts about this issue with families. Dillard references relatively few letters, but only because they ended up in newspapers. A wider net and a focus on soldiers from these specific communities would have enriched the argument a great deal. Did the attitudes of soldiers reflect what was happening in their home towns? Were they ahead or behind on this specific issue?

Given the reference to ‘Confederate Nationalism’ in the subtitle I was disappointed that the author didn’t do more to engage the relevant scholarship either in the body of the text and/or the footnotes. The bibliography is very thin and a number of relevant books are not included. It would certainly have been helpful to explore how these communities framed the war in 1861 and understood the place of slavery in their overall outlook.

The larger and perhaps more important question of whether this debate reflects a fundamental shift in how Confederates framed their cause is also unconvincing. Dillard argues that the debate demonstrates that Confederates were willing to give up slavery for independence. Dillard’s book shows clearly that military necessity served as the justification for the overwhelming number of calls in favor of enlisting slaves as soldiers. In the end the very few men that answered the call to serve were freed beforehand by their masters and some argued that their families would need to be freed as well, but it is not clear at all that this implied a policy of emancipation for the roughly 3 million people who remained enslaved even as late as 1865.

One of the things I have been struck by in my research covering the postwar period, through the early twentieth century, is the almost complete absence of any reference to this debate by former Confederates. They were certainly not eager to remind themselves or anyone else that they had embraced a fundamentally different understanding of the master-slave relationship. In fact, the postwar period serves as a reminder of how desperately they sought to return Southern society to the antebellum status quo without slavery.

I guess my overall disappointment stems from the fact that the book doesn’t do much more than Dillard’s book chapter referenced above.

That said, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign does make a crucial point that is vital to the ongoing debate about Black Confederate soldiers. It is one that I have made numerous times on this blog and elsewhere. There is no indication in the hundreds of newspaper editorials mined by Dillard that suggests that Confederates understood that blacks were already present in Confederate armies as soldiers. None. Zip. Nada. Not a single person attempted to justify slave enlistment in late 1864 and 1865 by pointing to the bravery and devotion of black men already in Confederate ranks.

13 comments… add one
  • I think the great mistake is to see the move to accept blacks, including enslaved ones, as having any greater meaning for the proponents than a sheer desperation tactic. For some, like Howell Cobb, if they had to choose between defeat and independence that, in any part, relied on the MILITARY service of blacks, there was no doubt that they would, without reservation, choose defeat on the battlefield rather than allow even the possibility that they were wrong about what blacks could do. Once the Civil War ended, I think all of the white ruling class, especially the proponents of black enlistment at the end, wanted to just pretend the whole thing never happened.

    As a student and a reader, I’d want to see, especially what members of the white ruling class wrote PRIVATELY about the subject (diaries, journals, correspondence with trusted friends and relatives). For decades before the war, the slave states had not allowed ANY debate on slavery. Those whites who defied this faced social ostracism and penalties including exile. It wasn’t just abolitionists like the Grimke sisters who faced this wrath. It was also directed at Hilton Helper who opposed slavery but was a virulent racist.

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    • All good points, Margaret. One of the problems in this book is the absence of any close study of how these communities compare in their attitudes toward slavery in the antebellum period and at the beginning of the war. Dillard basically plunges the reader into 1864 with very little of the broader picture.

      It’s very difficult to see how Davis’s campaign and the eventual vote to enlist slaves reflected a fundamental shift re: attitudes toward slavery. The vote itself was incredibly close and it is hard to imagine that many people who spoke out against it came around after the decision. In the end, the vote reflected a clear understanding that failure to add men into the ranks would be met with disaster. That they didn’t arrive at this decision much earlier is also evidence of just how committed white southerners were to this institution.

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  • was the last minute effort to arm slaves discussed much in “Confederate Veteran.”

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    • I haven’t come across it much at all. Keep in mind that the overarching argument in *Confederate Veteran* is that the slave population remained loyal to the Confederate war effort from beginning to end. The slave enlistment debate throws a wrench into that argument.

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  • Without having read Dillard’s book, the idea that the Confederacy was going to emancipate slaves runs into a catch 22: if the cause is such desperate straits that it has to recruit blacks, then it doesn’t have the time to actually make the policy work. If the cause isn’t in such desperate straits, then they wouldn’t consider it.

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  • To think enrolling a some black men into the army was going to led to any kind of emancipation or that the advocates were sacrificing slavery in any meaningful sense for victory also seems wrong.

    The real Confederate initiative was more like Washington’s in the Revolution. And that didn’t lead to emancipation, far from it, slavery’s great days were still to come.

    Given the actual policy of southern whites postwar: black codes and attempts to reestablish slavery by another name, I think we already know what the fate of a few thousand ex slaves who might have been enrolled as slaves, hardly the wedge to end slavery. It would have been slavery by another name, and for the millions of people still in slavery: slavery.

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  • Last comment, I meant “enrolled as soldiers.”

    And this seems to deprive the blacks to be drafted into the Confederate army any agency at all. What would motivate them to fight as soldiers in a losing cause? If they are fighting for their own personal freedom, then immediately surrendering to the first Union unit that shows up achieves that goal.

    Its like: OK you’re are chattel slaves, and worked like animals, without reference to your own desires. Now we’re putting you in the army to serve our ends, and you’re supposed to respond like impressed horses, only now you have guns.

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  • Consider the sage of the Union in attacking slavery, the contraband policy, the Confiscation Acts, the
    EP, and all the limitations and time that took. And that was with an anti slavery president, and a bunch of states that had mostly already ended slavery, and they were sticking it to their enemies.

    The CSA’s grasping at black straws in the final months of the war isn’t a basic change, its a hail mary pass. Only the field is two miles long, the ball is made of cast iron, and the receiver doesn’t have any arms.

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    • Important to keep in mind that there was never any poll taken about what the population thought about this issue. What we have is a limited record, including newspaper editorials that that the author mined extensively. The author certainly did not survey enough primary sources to be justified in concluding that, in the end, enlistment proves a fundamental shift in perceptions of slavery.

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      • It was an incredibly turbulent time, but, of those who had the energy and time to think about it, there had to be the reaization that a Union victory meant the absolute end of slavery as they knew it, regardless of whatever would succeed it. I don’t think it would require any fundamental change in support for the Peculiar Institution to support Davis’s proposal, even with reservations, on the grounds that giving freedom to a few enslaved could save the institution as a whole.

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        • Good point.

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  • This calls for speculation, but I wonder what the rank and file of the Confederate Army would think of armed Blacks in their midst, given their reaction to seeing armed Blacks in blue uniforms.

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    • We don’t have to speculate. We have plenty of accounts from the rank and file, which is why I find their absence in this study to be so curious. Not surprisingly their views track the broader spectrum of views found among the general public. A number of regiments signed petitions calling for their enlistment. One thing that Dillard accepts from the editorials is the undercurrent of a ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight’ but we know from Joe Glatthaar’s work on the Army of Northern Virginia that slaveholders were over represented in that particular army.

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