A Proposal for Black Confederate Soldiers – May 1861

Some of the best work on the history of emancipation in the Civil War is by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, College Park.[1] This editing project scoured the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for documents dealing with the coming of freedom for the slaves. They have published the best documents in their many publications, the best of the best being found in Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (The New Press, 1992).

In Free at Last (p. 5) the following document is found, a letter dated May 4, 1861, from a Georgia man, John J. Cheatham, to the Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Pope Walker. It is not only an eloquent example of the insurrection fear that existed among white Southerners throughout the South in Spring 1861, but also made a highly unconventional proposal for how to deal it–enlist slaves for armed service in the Confederate army where they could be closely watched and used to fight federal forces.


Athens Ga  4th May 1861

Some of our people are fearful that when a large portion of our fighting men are taken from the country, that large numbers of our negroes aided by emissaries will ransack portions of the country, kill numbers of inhabitants, and make their way to the black republicans;  There is no doubt but that numbers of them believe that Lincoln’s intention is to set them all free. Then, to counteract this idea, and make them assist in whipping the black republicans, which by the by would be the best thing that could be done, could they not be incorporated into our armies, say ten or twenty placed promiscuously in each company? In this way there number would be too small to do our army any injury, whilst they might be made quite efficient in battle, as there are a great many I have no doubt that would make great soldiers and would willingly go if they had a chance. They might be valued as you would a horse or other property, and let the government pay for them provided they was killed in battle, and it should be made known to them that if they distinguish themselves by good conduct in battle, they should be rewarded. Could some plan of this sort be thought expedient and be carried out with propriety, it would certainly lessen the dangers at home, and increase our strength in the field, and would I have but little doubt, be responded to by large numbers of our people in all the States. It is however only a suggestion, but one that I have thought might merit your consideration. Very Respectfully your humble Servant.

John J. Cheatham


Of course, Cheatham’s proposal went nowhere except to the files and eventually to the federal archives where it was found by the University of Maryland researchers over a century later. In earnestly proposing his solution to the insurrection scare, John J. Cheatham overlooked the fact that black military service was a highly subversive threat to the racial ideology at the heart of the Confederacy. As Howell Cobb, a founding father of the Confederacy, candidly wrote late in the war when the South really was in extremis and actually seriously considering enlisting black soldiers: “You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. . . . The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.

Using slaves as military laborers, of course, did not violate the Confederacy’s racial ideology. And by May 1861, secessionist forces were using African Americans as workers by the thousands. But employing slaves for this purpose increasingly brought them in proximity to federal troops, tempting many to take their chances at escape in the hope they would find sanctuary in Union lines. Such had already been the case at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens in March, just after Lincoln’s inauguration. Federal soldiers had turned those slaves away. However, two months later, with hostilities commenced, the atmosphere and attitude toward the Confederates was quite different in the North, and so would be the reception given their escaped slaves.

[1] Personal Note: I received my Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park and Ira Berlin, who headed up the Freedmen and Southern Society Project for many years, was my dissertation advisor. I never worked for the FSSP, but I know many people associated with this now legendary documentary editing project, including Leslie Rowland, its current director.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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1 Response to A Proposal for Black Confederate Soldiers – May 1861

  1. Andy Hall says:

    What’s interesting about the Howell Cobb quote — and you really have to read the whole passage to get a sense of Cobb’s revulsion at the idea of African American soldiers — is that he figures prominently in the Steiner account of the Confederate occupation of Frederick, Maryland in 1862, a dubious account that is widely quoted as “evidence” of large numbers of black Confederate soldiers. The advocates of BCS routinely omit Steiner’s vivid description of Cobb, presumably because the idea of him leading thousands of victorious African American soldiers in butternut uniforms is utterly incompatible with his position on arming slaves just two years later, when the Confederacy itself is in extremis. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

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