“Those Who Fight For Freedom Are Entitled To Freedom”

If “those who fight for freedom” are entitled to it then they are “entitled” to it equally.  If the negro is made to fight our battles of “freedom” then he must be governed by the same laws of war, and he must stand upon the same footing of the white man after the war.  What will be the consequences?  Why, if 250,000 negro men are entitled to their freedom because the fight for it, then their wives, children and families are also entitled to the same boon, just as their wives, children and families of the white man who fight the same battle.  In other words, the South is to be converted by this war into an abolitionized colony of free negroes, instead of a land of white freemen, knowing their rights and daring to maintain them.  If the negroes are to be free, they must be equally free with the master.  If they are to be armed like the master, then they are in fact equal of the master.  What is the result?  Why, they never can be slaves again, and must be treated as the master, politically, civilly and socially.  “Those who fight for freedom are entitled to freedom,” says the Enquirer, and we say so too. [The Lynchburg Republican, November 2, 1864]

Can it be possible that a Southern man–editor of a Southern journal–recognizing the right of property in slaves, admitting their inferiority in the scale of being and also their social inferiority, would recommend the passage of a law which at one blow levels all distinctions, deprives the master of a right to his property, and elevates the negro to an equality with the white man?–for, disguise it as you may, those who fight together in a common cause, and by success win the same freedom, enjoy equal rights and equal position, and in this case, are distinguished by color.  Are we prepared for this?  Is it for this we are contending?  Is it for this we would seek the aid of our slaves?  To win their freedom with our own independence, to establish in our midst a half or quarter of a million of black freemen, familiar with arts and discipline of war, and with large military experience!  Has the bitter experience of Virginia with regard to free negroes already been forgotten?  [Nat Turner’s Rebellion] [Richmond Enquirer, November 4, 1864]

Let’s be clear that the debate over the enlistment of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army was not carried out in reference to cooks and other odd laborers.  The impressment of large numbers of slaves to construct military fortifications around the Confederacy or their presence in factories in places such as Richmond, Petersburg, and Atlanta constituted a continuation of practices that were prevalent before the war.  One need only read Charles Dew’s book, Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works, which details the use of slaves to supplement its labor force.  Apart from the slaveholders who viewed the Confederate governments policy of impressment as a direct violation of their property rights as well as a reflection of a government that had overstepped its bounds there is no evidence that white southerners viewed their involvement as a threat to white supremacy.  The reason is because no one was under any illusion that these men – free and enslaved – were present in the army as soldiers.

White southerners were also not engaged in meaningless exercises in semantics that attempted to distinguish between “Black Confederate” and “Black Confederate Soldiers.”  That’s called a distinction without a difference.  The concept that most white Americans understood in the mid-nineteenth century was directly connected to the idea of the citizen soldier that entailed an obligation to the state in exchange for basic civil rights.  The continued butchering of the language of soldierhood can only lead to an interpretation that falls prey to the worst aspects of presentism.

Unlike the two editorials above that outlined the political and social costs of arming slaves with the most hyperbolic language, what I find interesting is the struggle that moderate white southerners faced in conceiving of black men as citizen soldiers.  Consider the following editorial that appeared in the Mobile Register in November 1863:

If they send the negro to confront our sons and brother in battle, why not, if necessity requires, meet them with the same fighting material?  Here at least we can beat them in recruiting, and outnumber them in reinforcements.  We can also make them [the Negroes] fight better than the Yankees are able to do.  Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshaled to labor.

Even among supporters of the policy notice the difficulty of imagining slaves operating outside of the authority of master and overseer.  The justification for their use is a consequence of the enemy’s decision to utilize slaves and not out of any desire to see these men as equals.

In the debate over enlistment in the Alabama Assembly the Montgomery Weekly Mail [September 2, 1863] reported the following exchange between Reps. Clarke and Bethea:

The chief objection to the bill was made on the ground that negroes employed as soldiers would not be reliable.  Mr. Clarke of Lawrence, stated the case of his own servant who had grown up with him from boyhood, who had gone with him to the army and had shared with him, share and share alike, every article of food and clothing, he had seized the first opportunity which presented of deserting him, and joining the Yankees.  He inferred from this that negroes, even those who had been treated the most favorably by their masters, were so ungrateful, that they would desert in the hour of danger and difficulty.

In the case mentioned by Mr. Clarke, he [Mr. Bethea] said, that if Mr. Clarke had treated his negro boy as a servant and not as a companion, the result would have been different.  The proper way to manage negroes, he contended, was to treat them as servants, and if you do this, you may always depend upon their faithfulness and obedience.

Here is what I am finding to be the standard account of body servants who end up missing or desert from camp.  They never do so out of a desire to be free; rather, they are seen as morally weak, “ungrateful” and in need of proper discipline and direction.  And that is one of the major roadblocks for most white southerners in conceiving of black citizen soldiers.  One of the pillars of slavery was the belief that slaves did not want to be free or could not conceptualize their freedom.  Citizen soldiers understood the dangers to their own personal freedom within a racial hierarchy as well as the Confederate nation.  They also understood how the enlistment of black soldiers jeopardized their own place within a free citizenry.

Many supporters of enlistment did so only as a last resort, but they struggled to conceptualize the motivation of slaves to fight.

If our slaves are to take part in this unhappy conflict, certainly we have a choice as to the side they shall take.  The independence of these States and the freedom of the master race is what we are fighting for.  If we lose that in the contest, we lose our slaves as a matter of course.  If we can save the first at the expense of the last, the result is so much clear gain.  But the proposition does not involve a loss of the last.  It is to give freedom to those only who by faithfully fighting for their masters have merited it as a reward.  It affects units of the race and not the whole institution.  [Mobile Register, November 1864]

Whether such a plan involving the freeing of part of the slave population in exchange for their service in the ranks had any chance of working is doubtful.  What is more interesting to me is the inability of the writer to imagine black agency that fell outside of the master-slave relationship.

It seems to me that this is where some interesting scholarship can be done on the subject.  Both sides were forced by the exigencies of war to reconsider the place of black Americans within their citizenry.  In the Confederacy this involved a re-imagining of the master-slave relationship that was shaped by prospects of victory early on, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the recruitment of black Union soldiers, advancing Union armies, and looming defeat.  Stay tuned.

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2 comments… add one
  • London John Aug 3, 2011 @ 5:04

    This is as close as anything I’ve read to stating what must surely have been the biggest objection to Black Confederate soldiers – that black units would probably shoot their officers and go over to the Union at the first opportunity. Perhaps it was considered too obvious to mention?
    I believe at the very end of the war a handful of Blacks were recruited into an integrated unit that never saw action – presumably integrated to avoid this danger.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 3, 2011 @ 6:50

      It is a consistent theme throughout the second half of the war as the issue surfaced. The eventual support that enlistment enjoyed was a function of necessity and had nothing do with any shift in the fears and assumptions that white southerners harbored about their slaves and blacks generally. Of course, many of these biases also drove the debate in the United States over the enlistment of blacks.

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