“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war.

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow Howell Cobb penned his famous letter to Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon regarding the controversy surrounding whether slaves should be allowed to join the army in exchange for their freedom.

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as the authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor with which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong–but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. (emphasis mine)

Cobb’s letter is referenced most often in discussions about the central place of slavery and white supremacy within the Confederate experiment. Beyond any strictly historical discussion, however, we have a tendency to push the views expressed in it aside as expressing the philosophy of a failed nascent state. After all, the winning side eventually did embrace the service of roughly 200,000 former slaves and free blacks.

But whether we like it or not Confederate history is a part of American history. The views expressed by Cobb sit comfortably alongside images of the heroic attack of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the broader sweep of our long civil rights narrative. As late as 1948 this nation was still debating whether ‘white and black troops could be kept together.’

From our vantage point 150 years later, whether the United States recruited blacks into its army before the Confederacy is irrelevant. Each of us must embrace the legacy of the experiences of both sides, which ultimately represent two sides of the same coin.

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16 comments… add one
  • Alan Skerrett Jan 13, 2015 @ 13:36

    It should also be noted that Cobb’s letter was not merely targeted at the idea of enlisting slaves to fight; it’s also targeted at the people espousing that idea.

    Recollect that the secessionists who founded the CSA did so upon their outrage at the election of the “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist fanatics who were part of the Lincoln’s voting coalition. Fire-eaters especially demonized anyone who smelled of the odor of abolition or emancipation.

    It would not do for Confederates to support the policies that had caused men like Cobb to seek secession. Cobb was making it clear that no matter what, we Confederates must stand firm in our principles.

    Of note is Cobb’s “soft” critique of R E Lee: “It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as the authority for such a policy.” Lee’s cachet makes it hard for Cobb to condemn him outright. But Cobb is nonetheless unequivocal in saying that he doesn’t think much of anyone who supports black enlistment, and that he wishes people who support this “most pernicious idea” would just be quiet.

  • Brad Jan 9, 2015 @ 10:25

    Further to Dan Weinfeld’s point, in antiquity, if you enlisted slaves to fight for you, didn’t that involve giving them their freedom at some point, which was the South would do if slaves enlisted. If the slaves who then enlisted were to be freed, wouldn’t they then presumably demand other kinds of freedom (such as the right to vote, own property or the right to work where they chose) and it was those freedoms that would then undercut the agricultural society and way of life that was the reason for secession. Seen to its logical conclusion, it wouldn’t have made any sense and you might as well go down fighting, rather than surrender your ideals.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 9, 2015 @ 10:41

      Confederate policy did include freedom in exchange for service, but it was not intended as the beginning of a general emancipation plan. No doubt, there would have been problems along the lines that you describe if there had been more time to carry out the plan more extensively.

      • Dan Weinfeld Jan 9, 2015 @ 11:00

        The Black Codes – enacted in many Southern states fewer than 12 months after Cobb’s statement – make it pretty clear what this “freedom” would have amounted to.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 9, 2015 @ 11:00


        • Brad Jan 9, 2015 @ 12:52

          Agreed. It’s one of those we will never know — fortunately — but the plan could have contained the seeds of destruction.

          • RE Watson Jan 10, 2015 @ 11:55

            One would only hope !

  • Dan Weinfeld Jan 9, 2015 @ 7:13

    Since 19th cent Americans were so consumed with ancient history, is part of Cobb’s revulsion to arming slaves because relying on slave soldiers would be reminiscent of the slave armies of Rome and Persia? I think it was a popular theory that Rome’s decline coincided with its increasing dependence on slave legions. Athens was perceived to have triumphed over Persia because of the surperiority of free citizens when fighting against Persia’s slave army. Was merely considering the question of arming slaves so abhorrent to Cobb and his class because it suggested that the noble partirican South was on the same path as ancient despots toward decadence and inevitable disaster?

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jan 9, 2015 @ 5:52

    “Experiment” is, I think, the correct word here. Others may know more but I seem to recall reading somewhere once that the United States Colored Troops were technically not part of the US Regular Army.

    • Andy Hall Jan 9, 2015 @ 6:44

      That may be the case, the Regular Army being defined at a certain, specific size according to legislation. However, they were U.S. troops, as opposed to state troops, and that made a huge and positive difference in the way they were organized and drilled. With a few exceptions, like the 54th and 55 Massachusetts, the War Department organized these units directly, and put in place processes for appointing experienced officers to command them. Certainly there was objection to creating USCT units within the army, but once the decision was made, they buckled down and got it done.

      • Bob Huddleston Jan 9, 2015 @ 8:46

        A good comment. “Regulars” were the outfits which would remain in service after the war ended. The USCTs, like the state organized and named USVs, would be discharged at the end of hostilities. Any regular officer who was commissioned into the USCTs would revert back to his regular commission when discharged from the Volunteers. I am going to have to do some digging to see if I can find any USCT officers who were regulars.

  • Brad Jan 8, 2015 @ 3:33

    For me, the central tenet of the Cobb letter has been that if you used slaves to fight for the South, the raison d’être for secession has been tossed out the window.

    • Andy Hall Jan 8, 2015 @ 5:01

      It’s more than that; there’s a deep revulsion, an abhorrence, in Cobb’s argument. He’s not just saying, “this won’t work”; he’s saying, “this is too dangerous to experiment with.”

      • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2015 @ 5:04

        That’s exactly right, Andy. Even in the North recruitment was an “experiment” that many believed was “too dangerous”. From our vantage point it is easy to see that Cobb was speaking for more than just the white South.

  • Al Mackey Jan 7, 2015 @ 16:31

    But wait, how can that be, Kevin? We’re told there were tens of thousands of black confederate soldiers. How is it that Howell Cobb, a confederate general, didn’t know about them? How is it that Jefferson Davis, the confederate commander-in-chief, didn’t know about them? 🙂

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