Why It Is Important To Ask the Right Question

The latest issue of Civil War Times Illustrated features an article about Patrick Cleburne’s suggestion to arm the slave population.  The cover advertises the piece with the following question: "Should the South Have Armed Its Slaves?"  The question itself betrays a complete lack of understanding as to why this issue was so controversial and why it never happened until very close to the end of the war.  And even when it did the decision on the part of Confederate officials to enlist slaves resulted in very few numbers.  More to the point, however, the question reflects the tendency of so many to view military affairs or questions related to the military in a vacuum.  This is another example of the "If-only the Confederacy had done x" philosophy.  The question isn’t should the recruitment of slaves into the army have taken place, the question is, rather, could it have done so at some point earlier in the war.   

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4 comments… add one
  • John Maass Sep 19, 2007 @ 10:10

    As a student primarily of the War for American Independence, I find it very interesting that the same question of arming slaves (or even “free Negroes”) came up in the early 1780s, in the South. They were to receive emancipation as a reward for service. It is well-known that John Laurens of SC, one of Washington’s aides, supported this idea and even introduced it to the SC Assembly, where it was soundly rejected. Gen. Nathanael Greene supported this plan as well, perhaps because of his Quaker roots. I’d love to see a comparison between the 1780s and the plans some presented in 1864 and 1865.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2007 @ 9:57

    John, — I tend to agree with you here. My problem is that the question is typically answered within the context of a military vacuum.

  • John Maass Sep 19, 2007 @ 8:59

    I agree that the “headline” on the cover smacks of (as you say) the “If-only the Confederacy had done x philosophy'” but I don’t see anything wrong with the question “should the recruitment of slaves into the army have taken place.” In fact, its a great question in that it raises the issue of what exactly the South was fighting for, and what the fight would mean if they did indeed arm the slaves. I don’t see why there can only be one question in this scenario.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 15, 2007 @ 21:05

    Catch 22
    The South would only consider some form of emancipation for military service when the situation got desperate.
    When the situation got desperate there was not enough time to execute any meaningful emancipation.

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