With the outbreak of the Civil War, white men in the South joined the Confederate Army in large numbers. However, with the white population of the North outnumbering the South over four to one, the Confederacy had no choice but to draw more deeply than the Union on its male population of military age. This reality had great implications for southern slavery since it was this very group that ultimately enforced the system, serving overseers, patrollers, slave catchers, and local militia. As they departed for Confederate service, the civilians they left behind got worried.
One such citizen was G. W. Gayle an attorney living in Cahaba, Alabama (just southeast of Selma). On May 22, 1861, he wrote a concerned letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It read:
Dear Sir: Under the late act of Congress of the Confederate States, military Companies can present themselves to the War Department, and be received, without a call from you or the Governor of the Confederate States. This may be right; but, there should be watchfulness in the reception of troops, in too large numbers from different localities?
If no check is interposed, by some one in power, our whole white population will volunteer (men, women & children, I believe) and anarchy will prevail and the slaves become our masters, if they can. For Heaven’s Sakes, bring this popular madness, if you can, into discipline, or we will ruin ourselves by the recklessness of our patriotism.
Source: Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Series I, Volume I: The Destruction of Slavery. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 781-82.
While Gayle worried about a slave revolt, the real danger to slavery in the American South was not barbaric, vindictive slaves. Instead, it was the gradual unraveling of the slave system as its arm of enforcement was much weakened by Confederate enlistment. So while G. W. Gayle was right to worry about what the departure of young white men portended for slavery, he misunderstood the nature of the threat. The slaves would not wantonly attack their owners, but slow down work or refuse to work at all, or simply flee for Union lines when the opportunity presented itself, much as was starting to happen around Fortress Monroe in Virginia and soon would elsewhere as federal forces began to invade the Confederate South.