Why the Confederacy Didn’t Arm the Slaves

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.

To the Editor of the New-York Times:

Will you not call attention to the present greatest danger of the war — that the South, in their desperation, will free and arm their slaves to meet this great new Northern army?

Of course it would give them foreign recognition, and final victory. To us it must bring defeat, shame, and the loss of all for which we have spent such treasure and blood. READER.

NEW-YORK, Wednesday, Aug. 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.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1862/08/11/news/will-the-south-arm-its-slaves.html

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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4 Responses to Why the Confederacy Didn’t Arm the Slaves

  1. Glenn B says:

    Good stuff. To place things into even more context, “READER” was ironically probably an abolitionist. At the start of July, Lincoln called for more volunteers, and at the end of the month there were rallies all over the north to encourage and facilitate the recruitment of soldiers. When READER referred to “this new great Northern army,” he was likely talking about these new recruits. Meanwhile, in mid-july radicals in Congress has passed a new Militia Act calling for the recruitment of African Americans into Union service as laborers, and possibly as soldiers. The New York Times was a conservative Republican paper, and as such, at this point they supported the use of blacks as laborers, but were not ready to call for their use as soldiers. For close to a year, many abolitionists and radical Republicans had been pushing for emancipation and the use of black troops based on the argument that the South was using their slaves in combat, and would do so on a larger scale if the war started to go against them. Thus, READER was likely calling on the Times to come out in support of emancipation and the raising of Union black troops to meet Lincoln’s call for more volunteers. Obviously, the editor’s response showed that the Times was not yet ready to support such a position . . . at least not based on the rationale that the South was using slaves in combat roles.

  2. Margaret D. Blough says:

    The Confederate terminology for Union soldiers who were black was generally “negroes in arms” or “armed negroes” which avoided acknowledging them as soldiers and focused on the primary concern which Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith made quite clear to his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor:

    Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
    Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
    GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.
    I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
    Lieutenant-General, Commanding.<<

    The extent of the white Southern obsession with servile insurrection cannot be underestimate. That was why the news that Lincoln had authorized, in the final EP, accepting enlistments by men who were black was greeted with rage in the Confederacy.

    • Excellent point, Margaret. It also explains the severe penalties threatened against white Union officers in charge of black soldiers. Confederate leaders tried to depict them as John Browns trying incite servile insurrection.


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