Why the Confederate Slave Enlistment Debate Matters

On this day in 1865 the Confederate government authorized the enlistment of slaves as soldiers. For many it’s an opportunity to take a shot at just how desperate the Confederacy had become by this point. It’s true. The military situation was certainly precarious at best and many people had given up hope on independence, but we should keep in mind that they did not know how much longer the war would last.

This anniversary is also an opportunity to poke fun at the very idea of a nation at war trying to preserve slavery considering the recruitment of slaves as soldiers. Was it possible to raise a significant number of enslaved men into the Confederate army in 1865? While military recruiters managed to raise a very small number in Richmond, it is impossible to know for sure. That said, we most certainly would have seen additional Black soldiers recruited had the war continued. But this is not really the issue.

My bigger concern is our tendency to frame the debate that led to the Confederate slave enlistment legislation in isolation from the process and debate that took place in the United States in late 1862 and into 1863 over the very same question.

We tend to forget in this moment that neither the United States nor the Confederacy set out to enlist African Americans into their respective armies. For both sides this was to be a white man’s war and the war could have ended at a number of points with only white men in the ranks and slavery largely intact.

A number of factors shaped the debates over the enlistment of Black men in the United States and the Confederacy—most obviously in the case of the latter the fact that it was a slaveholding society attempting to preserve its “peculiar institution.” Despite the support of a small group of abolitionists and Republicans, the Lincoln administration focused on maintaining the loyalty of its four slaveholding states and a population that harbored deeply-entrenched racist views.

Both sides questioned whether Black men could fight and Confederates and white Americans alike feared the implications of a policy that threatened their privileged status. Yes, one side was defined by slave labor and the other had largely embraced a free labor ideology, but both sides shared a similar racial outlook.

Protracted civil wars often lead the feuding parties to places that they did not seek out or even envision at the start. This was the case for both the United States and the Confederacy regarding the question of Black soldiers.

Understanding both enlistment debates and the consequences of their respective policy decisions points directly to the postwar debates over the place of African Americans in a reunited nation.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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10 comments… add one
  • James Michael Brodie Jun 13, 2021 @ 0:34

    Thank you for such an informative and civil discussion of this period in American history.

    As the descendent of Africans who fought on both sides in the Civil War (recall that wed were not citizens), I can attest to the many family discussions about the war. Those of us who fought on the Union side did so because of a promise of freedom and full citizenship, based on President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

    No such document was created on the Confederate side. No promise of freedom was offered. And those of us who were tabbed to fight were not volunteers, and as one posted keenly observes, we were neve afforded even the basic respect of being regarded as soldiers with rank or title.

    Whether the idea of Black people as fully capable of changing hearts and minds, clearly that did not happen as future generations generations sought not to tell the truth about our nation’s past sins, but rather romanticized that history and and elevated those who took up arms against the United States (and murdered a sitting American president) to hero status, erecting monuments to them painting them with a “Gone With the Wind” paintbrush of purity and innocence.

    There is nothing that I celebrate about the Confederate States of America.

    Submitted respectfully…

  • Andersonh1 Apr 1, 2021 @ 5:15

    It’s interesting how both sides had to be desperate before they considered mass enlistment and arming of the black man.

    “It had got to be,” said he [Lincoln], “Mid-summer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game! I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy;” – published in the New York Times and attributed to F. B. Carpenter, who said Lincoln told him the story.

  • London John Mar 15, 2021 @ 6:07

    “Protracted civil wars often lead the feuding parties to places that they did not seek out or even envision at the start.” Indeed; in times of crisis people can experience radical changes in attitudes that would take much longer or not occur at all in more tranquil times. And as the war went on, did people in the North become more anti-slavery and less supportive of white supremacy simply because these were the ideology of the enemy? And was there a drifting backwards from the radical attitudes reached during the war in the decades that followed?
    As for the possibility of slave soldiers in the Confederate army, is the example of the contemporary Brazilian army at all relevant?

  • bryanac625 Mar 14, 2021 @ 12:54

    I always see the attempt by some people to see the enslaved men/camp servants of the Confederate army as soldiers to be a measure of the success of the integration that the activists of Civil Rights Movement fought- and in many cases died- for. Integration as we know it did not come from the Confederacy, or the postwar UCV, SCV, or UDC organizations.

    As you know there are many accounts from Confederate soldiers of the deeds of Black men who perfomed duties in support of the army. But the common denominator is that they are never called soldiers. I found this account from Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume V, 1897, p. 384:

    FIDELITY OF NEGRO WAR SERVANTS.

    Mr. L. M. Blackford, of Alexandria, Va., formerly adjutant of the Twenty-fourth Virginia Infantry, writes: Observing in recent issues of the VETERAN mention of the fidelity of negro servants during the war, I give you my experience Returning to my command near Richmond in the

    winter of 1864-65, after a short leave spent in Lynchburg, I took with me a young man named Alfred. I had gone to school on the plantation where Alfred was born and had known him as a child and afterwards, but never well; and, as he was of unprepossessing demean or, did not suspect his worth. In camp and on the march he was an excellent servant. On my going into action at Five Forks, as usual unmounted, he took charge of my horse, which, in view of the disastrous defeat there, I had the best reason for expecting never to see again. Alfred appeared, however, next day, horse and man both safe, and I was assured by men in the regiment who saw him leading the animal through thickets and brushwood within the Yankee fire that he had saved my property at the risk of his life.

    I was captured at Sailor’s Creek April 6, but was detained prisoner only a week. Shortly after my return to Lynchburg Alfred presented himself one day, bringing what he considered the most valuable of the few ef fects that I had left in a valise in our headquarters wagon, with which he remained on the retreat until its contents were destroyed by our own people to prevent their falling into the enemy’s hands. He told me some what sheepishly when he handed them over that the, were all the things he could save “when dey was spikin de baggage.” I had no idea of ever recovering them.

    Alfred is never referred to as a soldier with a rank, regiment, or any military connection. Besides this, Blackford said “I took him with me.” I’ve never heard of one soldier referring to another soldier like that.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 14, 2021 @ 12:59

      Thanks for the comment. As I show in chapter 3 of Searching For Black Confederates, these stories must be understood in the context of the Jim Crow-era.

      • bryanac625 Mar 14, 2021 @ 13:13

        Yes and I recall your explanation of that. If I remember correctly, this supposed “faithfulness” was about making former Confederates feel better about the past (if Alfred was so faithful to me, the bigger picture could not have been that bad); as well as a fondness for less threatening times than the activism of people like W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and others. In more recent years, the comments of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson- about how he never saw Black people mistreated or complain about segregation/discrimination- are very much like those of postwar Confederate veterans like Blackford.

  • Msb Mar 14, 2021 @ 5:10

    Cleburne was pretty clear that the aim of his proposal was to enable white Confederates to maintain/create a system of social and speconomic control as much like slavery as possible.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 14, 2021 @ 5:24

      That’s right. It’s unfortunate that many people interpret his proposal and the broader push to authorize the enlistment of Black soldiers as part of a general emancipation policy.

  • Walter D Kamphoefner Mar 13, 2021 @ 14:45

    It is certainly true that while slavery stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line, racism did not. However, it is also worth pointing out that the performance of Blacks in the Union army convinced a lot of skeptics and initial opponents of Black enlistment. Maybe even some Confederates experienced an awakening. When Confederates were debating Black recruitment, Howell Cobb stated: “if slaves will make good soldiers—our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2021 @ 14:57

      All good points. We simply do not know how, if at all, enlistment in the Confederacy might have impacted Cobb and other skeptics.

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