At the very beginning of his new collection of essays Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a few thoughts about the historical significance of the Confederate slave enlistment debate. According to Coates the debate itself reflects a deeply ingrained and long-standing “fear” that assumptions of black inferiority are unfounded.
The fear had precedent. Toward the end of the Civil War, having witnessed the effectiveness of the Union’s “colored troops,” a flailing Confederacy began considering an attempt to recruit blacks into its army. But in the nineteenth century, the idea of the soldier was heavily entwined with the notion of masculinity and citizenship. How could an army constituted to defend slavery, with all of its assumptions about black inferiority, turn around and declare that blacks were worthy of being invited into Confederate ranks? As it happened, they could not. “The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of our revolution,” observed Georgia politician Howell Cobb. “And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” There could be no win for white supremacy here. If blacks proved to be the cowards that “the whole theory of slavery” painted them as, the battle would literally be lost. But much worse, should they fight effectively–and prove themselves capable of “good Negro government”–then the larger would could never be won. (pp. xiv-xv)
Coates beautifully nails down the racial implications of the debate for a nation committed to creating a slaveholding republic around white supremacy, but I wish he had taken the argument further. It is true that the United States embraced black men to help to save the Union by 1863, but the same questions that paralyzed the Confederacy until the final weeks of the war were at the center of the debate in the United States.
Could black men fight effectively in the ranks and if they could what did that mean for assumptions of black masculinity and black inferiority held by the vast majority of white Americans? The United States took the plunge into arming blacks and as a result was forced to confront the very questions and fears that defeat saved Confederates from having to confront.
One of the things that I have come away with having read extensively among the primary sources related to the Confederate slave enlistment debate is that it must not be brushed aside as the final chapter in a failed slaveholders rebellion, but as part of a broader American conversation about race that we are still writing.