Today, 150 years ago, the Confederacy enacted its infamous “Twenty Negro Law,” which exempted persons owning twenty or more slaves from military service in the southern army. The law read:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact… to secure the proper police of the country, one person, either as agent, owner or overseer on each plantation on which one white person is required to be kept by the laws or ordinances of any State, and on which there is no white male adult not liable to do military service, and in States having no such law, one person as agent, owner or overseer, on each plantation of twenty negroes, and on which there is no white male adult not liable to military service; And furthermore, For additional police for every twenty negroes on two or more plantations, within five miles of each other, and each having less than twenty negroes, and of which there is no white male adult not liable to military duty, one person, being the oldest of the owners or overseers on such plantations;… are hereby exempted from military service in the armies of the Confederate States;…Provided, further, That the exemptions hereinabove enumerated and granted hereby, shall only continue whilst the persons exempted are actually engaged in their respective pursuits or occupations.
Scholars generally analyze the law in relation to class tensions in the Confederacy. As evidence, that while slaveholders were willing to send others to risk their lives defending the right to own slaves, they engineered a law that largely exempted the planter class from military service. And this analysis does have a point, as the Twenty Negro Law led to grumbling from non-slaveholding soldiers in the Confederate Army of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
While the law certainly created inequities in the Confederacy concerning the obligation to military service, its ostensible purpose should be taken seriously. Certainly it exempted slaveholders and/or their agents from service in the Confederate Army, but the Twenty Negro Law also obligated them to another purpose: “policing” the slaves. In other words, taken at its word, the law’s main purpose was meant to prevent unrest by slaves on the Confederate home front.
The fear of slave unrest in the Confederate South was quite real. Early in the war, as white men left to join the army and local militia units were sent away from home for service at the front, letters began appearing on the desks of southern leaders pleading that some men be left at home to maintain discipline among the slaves. (Civil War Emancipation has covered this topic before. To access those posts, <click here>.) The fear of slave revolt had helped create the Confederacy in the first place. It is ironic that instead of bringing white Southerners the feeling of security they craved, it made them only more worried.
This worry was not unfounded. As white manpower departed the traditional system of enforcing the slave system was strained or collapsed entirely. Armed force quite literally maintained slavery in the American South. Besides the activities of planters and overseers, a system of policing existed beyond the plantation to defend slavery. Patrols traveled the roads of the South, stopping African Americans away from their plantations to see if they had passes from their owners, and arresting those that did not. Private slave catchers operated to track down slaves that evaded the patrols, if they had not already been taken into custody by county sheriffs or village constables. And just about any town of a certain size in the South had facilities to detain fugitive slaves until they could be returned to their owners.
Yet to make this system work required manpower, and the insatiable demands of the Confederate military drained away the portion of the southern population bested suited to enforce the slave system: young adult white males. Hence, with the Twenty Negro Law, the Confederate government tried to keep a minimal level of manpower at home to prop up slavery and prevent the feared race war that white Southerners believed would come with emancipation.
To judge from the results of the Twenty Negro Law, in the end it was a failure. The number of white men retained on the plantations by the law was not enough to keep the slave system functioning as before, as patrollers, slave-catchers, and law men went off to war. In many parts of the South, even some places far removed from the front, lacking an effective enforcement system behind them, planters had to make concessions to their slaves, even paying them, to keep their plantations functioning. And if Union forces moved into an area or even nearby, the slaves system often crumbled for good. Regardless of the Twenty Negro Law, the Confederate Army ultimately was unable to defend the South from Union forces, and even with this law, planters were ultimately unable to keep slavery alive without the backing of antebellum enforcement mechanisms increasingly deprived of manpower. Hence, as legislation designed to prevent emancipation, the Twenty Negro Law was a miserable failure.