Reading nineteenth-century newspapers can sometimes be a slightly frustrating experience. The language is usually perfectly intelligible but even if you are knowledgeable about the historical context, as Michel Foucault might have put it, they have an entirely different discourse than the early 21st century. It is a bit like visiting a foreign country where English is the main language. Yes, you can understand the inhabitants most of the time, but sometimes the exact meaning is unclear even if you can comprehend the words, because you do not fully appreciate the cultural subtext.
Still, once in a while, a writer breaks through discourse barrier between the 1860s and the 2010s with candor and insight that bridges the gulf of 150 years. One example appeared in the New York Times on August 8, 1862, and concerned a question that worried some Northerners during the Civil War: would the Confederacy arm its slaves? The upside would be the rebels could close, at least partly, the manpower disadvantage they suffered vis-à-vis the federals. Not surprisingly, a few white Southerners advocated enlisting slaves in the Confederate Army, from time-to-time over the course of the war, and there appear to be a handful of African Americans informally that seem to have fought for the South, especially early on. But the Confederate government resisted calls for black soldiers until the last desperate days of the war with final defeat looming, and no official black units ever fought in battle for the Confederacy.
So why did the Confederacy refuse to enlist African Americans as soldiers in its army? The letter writer in the New York Times hit the nail on the head. By arming the slaves, it would help them turn on their owners and other white Southerners in a Haitian-style revolt. In other words, rebel leaders dared not recruit black soldiers because of the prospect it would bring on the very event that secession had aimed to forestall–a bloody emancipation race war.
Here is the full text of the letter signed “READER” that appeared in the New York Times on August 8, 1862.
The danger feared by our correspondent is, of all others, least likely to happen. It is not simply because the South has not the arms for the purpose, but because the negroes cannot be trusted with arms. To take the course apprehended would be to inaugurate a servile war far more terrible than the civil one now raging; a war that would leave the women and children of the South at the mercy of the slaves; and in every way intensify the evils from which such arming is designed to save a ruined people. The slaveholders well understand against whom the blacks will use any muskets they can lay hands on. They also quite thoroughly understand the sympathy with which the negroes universally regard the progress and results of the Northern warfare. In the presence of these facts, nothing is less to be feared than the arming of the slaves.