For obvious reasons I’ve been looking forward to reading Philip Dillard’s new book, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves (Mercer University Press, 2017). I spend a little time in chapter 2 of Searching For Black Confederates tracing the broad contours of the debate throughout the Confederacy over whether to arm slaves as soldiers in 1864 and 1865. For that I rely heavily on the scholarship of Bruce Levine, Robert Durden, and a piece by Dillard that appeared some years ago in a volume of essays in honor or Emory Thomas.
Having just finished reading the book I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts. I will write up a formal review for Civil War History by the end of the summer.
Dillard’s argument is straightforward and even, prima facie, a convincing one. By comparing how the public debate evolved in Virginia, Georgia, and Texas Dillard argues that support for slave enlistment depended on the proximity of the Union army. In places like Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia as well as central Georgia – along the lines of Sherman’s March – President Davis’s November 1864 initial call to consider slave enlistment received more vocal support. In contrast, parts of Texas, including Galveston and Houston downplayed and even resisted such talk. The area remained untouched by Union forces (apart from the presence of the navy off-shore); they were able to maintain trade through Mexico with the rest of the world and their enslaved population remained secure.
Again, the speed at which the positions of individuals evolved in these different communities depended on the local threat posed by the U.S. military and shifting perceptions of the overall Confederate cause into early 1865.
The big concern that I have with this book is the body of evidence employed by Dillard. He relies almost exclusively on newspapers, including editorials and letters-to-the-editor. While newspapers are certainly helpful in tracking changing attitudes regarding slave enlistment they are not sufficient. At numerous times throughout the book the amount of quoting from these editorials becomes overkill.
All of the communities discussed in this book sent soldiers off to war and many of them shared their thoughts about this issue with families. Dillard references relatively few letters, but only because they ended up in newspapers. A wider net and a focus on soldiers from these specific communities would have enriched the argument a great deal. Did the attitudes of soldiers reflect what was happening in their home towns? Were they ahead or behind on this specific issue?
Given the reference to ‘Confederate Nationalism’ in the subtitle I was disappointed that the author didn’t do more to engage the relevant scholarship either in the body of the text and/or the footnotes. The bibliography is very thin and a number of relevant books are not included. It would certainly have been helpful to explore how these communities framed the war in 1861 and understood the place of slavery in their overall outlook.
The larger and perhaps more important question of whether this debate reflects a fundamental shift in how Confederates framed their cause is also unconvincing. Dillard argues that the debate demonstrates that Confederates were willing to give up slavery for independence. Dillard’s book shows clearly that military necessity served as the justification for the overwhelming number of calls in favor of enlisting slaves as soldiers. In the end the very few men that answered the call to serve were freed beforehand by their masters and some argued that their families would need to be freed as well, but it is not clear at all that this implied a policy of emancipation for the roughly 3 million people who remained enslaved even as late as 1865.
One of the things I have been struck by in my research covering the postwar period, through the early twentieth century, is the almost complete absence of any reference to this debate by former Confederates. They were certainly not eager to remind themselves or anyone else that they had embraced a fundamentally different understanding of the master-slave relationship. In fact, the postwar period serves as a reminder of how desperately they sought to return Southern society to the antebellum status quo without slavery.
I guess my overall disappointment stems from the fact that the book doesn’t do much more than Dillard’s book chapter referenced above.
That said, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign does make a crucial point that is vital to the ongoing debate about Black Confederate soldiers. It is one that I have made numerous times on this blog and elsewhere. There is no indication in the hundreds of newspaper editorials mined by Dillard that suggests that Confederates understood that blacks were already present in Confederate armies as soldiers. None. Zip. Nada. Not a single person attempted to justify slave enlistment in late 1864 and 1865 by pointing to the bravery and devotion of black men already in Confederate ranks.