Having just finished writing about the debate over slave enlistment that took place throughout the Confederacy by mid-1864 through March 1865, it is safe to say that I’ve read hundreds of letters, diary entries and op-eds that explored what white southerners took to be the dangers of arming their bondsmen. Even those who came out in favor of enlistment shared many of the fears expressed by the opposition.
Those accounts that stood against the policy tend to blend into one another, but than once in a while you come across an op-ed like the one below, which was published in the Charleston Courier on January 24, 1865, just weeks before its fall.
It is to maintain slavery, God’s institution of labor, and the primary political element of our Confederate form of Government, state sovereignty, that we have taken the sword of justice against the infidel and oppressor. The two must stand or fall together. To talk of maintaining our independence while we abolish slavery is simply to talk folly. Four millions of our fellow-men in the domestic relation of slaves have, in the providence of God, under His unalterable decree…been committed to our charge. We dare not abandon them to the tender mercies of the infidel. Like the marriage, parental and fraternal relations, slavery enters into the composition of our families, and like those God-ordained relations, it has the sanction of His law and His gospel. The family relations are incorporated into civil government, and with us slavery is one of those relations.
African slave labor is the only form of labor whereby our soil can be cultivated, and the great staples of our clime produced. The testimony of our ample experience proves that the white man is not physically adapted to that end, and that he sickens, degenerates and dies, if he undertakes it. By the removal of African slave labor from this land, our productive and fruitful fields much become barren waste[s] and impenetrable swamps. By yielding to abolition infidelity, and emancipating our slaves, we will destroy the household, disorganize the family, and annihilate our Government–act contrary to the will and instruction of God–bring down His just wrath upon our heads, and doom ourselves to utter humiliation, contempt and wretchedness as a people. The last hope of true Republican liberty on the American continent would be lost, the progress of the family, but the light of religion, science and true philosophy, toward peace and happiness, blackened for centuries, and the triumph of the rulers of the darkness of this world advanced.
…And shall we look to other sources than the Almighty arm and the sword. He has placed in our hands for protection? Is it for human aid and foreign help we sigh? Let us go forth to battle, Deo vindice, and see that we bear not the sword in vain. [Robert Durden, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, pp. 180-81]
The importance of slavery to the Confederacy and white southerners is all here. It reveals the many ways in which slavery pervaded southern society and how it structured all of the central institutions, including the family, government, and religion.
But what I find so revealing after all of this reading is the lengths that Americans went to during the Civil War to hold on to a system of white supremacy. The writer leaves us with a clear prescription that it is better to go down together as a nation of white people in a blaze of glory than to abandon a God-ordained institution or what some would have pointed to as Confederate Exceptionalism.