By late 1862, the recruitment of African Americans as soldiers in the Union Army was well under way with thousands of black men already under arms and many thousands more that would soon be recruited. Although they would face discrimination–unequal pay, denied officer’s commissions, and countless other indignities large and small–most black troops in the federal army served willingly, glad for the chance to play an active role in their race’s liberation.
The existence of black Union soldiers though caused great consternation in the Confederacy. Although a few white Southerners had and would continue to advocate recruiting African Americans into their own army, most found the idea repellent. And they considered black men in federal uniform to be even more objectionable. Armed African Americans, even under military discipline, raised the bloody specter of Saint-Domingue–in other words, servile insurrection on a mass scale. Hence, since Confederates equated black soldiers in the Union Army as slaves in revolt, they could treat African Americans in federal uniform as rebellious slaves, meaning in any way they saw fit, including summary execution on the battlefield.
In denying black Union soldiers the customary protections accorded enemy troops, it made their military service riskier than for soldiers in white regiments. The film, Glory (1989), put this fact to dramatic use in telling the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first black regiment formed in the North during the Civil War.
Glory gets some things wrong here. For instance, the proclamation announcing the harsh treatment of black Union soldiers came not from the Confederate Congress, but from Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president just before Christmas 1862. Another interesting thing about the proclamation is that most of it was not devoted to the subject of black soldiers in the Union army. Instead, the bulk of the document was a screed and bill of attainder against northern general Benjamin Butler. The Confederate president declared:
I . . . do pronounce and declare the said Benjamin F. Butler to be a felon deserving of capital punishment. I do order that he be no longer considered or treated simply as a public enemy of the Confederate States of America but as an outlaw and common enemy of mankind, and that in the event of his capture the officer in command of the capturing force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging.
The controversial Butler certainly had done much to earn the ire of President Davis and the Confederacy. Butler, of course, had devised the clever justification not to return slaves to their rebel owners by declaring them “contraband of war.” But most of Davis’ indictment focused on Ben Butler’s time as overseer of Union-occupied New Orleans and the various indignities, real and imagined, to which the Confederates held him responsible. They can be read by <clicking here>.
After unloading on Benjamin Butler, Jefferson Davis finally turned to the more general policy part of the document. With the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army under way in earnest, Davis felt it necessary to make an official statement about a step by the Lincoln administration that he and other Confederate leaders considered beyond the pale. The declaration read:
Whereas the President of the United States has by public and official declaration signified not only his approval of the effort to excite servile war within the Confederacy but his intention to give aid and encouragement thereto if these independent States shall continue to refuse submission to a foreign power after the 1st day of January next, and has thus made known that all appeals to the laws of nations, the dictates of reason and the instincts of humanity would be addressed in vain to our enemies, and that they can be deterred from the commission of these crimes only by the terms of just retribution
Jefferson Davis’ idea of “just retribution” was to treat black Union soldiers and their white officers not as legitimate combatants, but as perpetrators of a slave revolt. The relevant section of his declaration read:
4. That the like orders be executed in all cases with respect to all commissioned officers of the United States when found serving in company with armed slaves in insurrection against the authorities of the different States of this Confederacy.
So, in other words, Jefferson Davis proposed handing over black Union soldiers and their white soldiers to state authorities as had been the case with slave revolts in the antebellum South. The clear implication, of course, was they would be put to death much as Nat Turner (a black rebel) and John Brown (a white abettor to slave revolt).
Still, intentionally or not, Davis left some uncertainty in how captured soldiers and commissioned officers in black Union regiments would be treated. And by delegating this matter to the states he also was, in effect, washing the hands of the Confederate central government in the handling of African-American prisoners-of-war. Jefferson Davis sounded tough by promising death to Benjamin Butler and his subordinate officers if they ever fell into Confederate hands. But the proclamation was not as definite as the movie Glory would make it seem, where the comparable proclamation promised summary execution to any black soldier and their white officers taken prisoner.
In any case, black Union prisoners’ actual treatment by Confederate forces proved ad hoc. In some case, such as the infamous Fort Pillow incident in March 1864, African American troops were massacred as they attempted to surrender. In other cases, they were treated much as white Union soldiers and shipped off to stockades like Andersonville. In still other cases, black POWs were used as forced labor by the Confederates or even siphoned off by rebel soldiers or officers as personal servants or even as laborers on their plantations and farms back home. However, as uncertain as was the fate of African-American prisoners, the Confederacy refused to exchange them for their own POWs in federal custody until late in the war when the southern army was desperate for men to add to its dwindling ranks.
Nonetheless, Jefferson Davis’ declaration just before Christmas 1862, for all its bluster and buck passing, remains an infamous document. Especially, in how it sought to equate the honorable military service of uniformed soldiers of a sovereign government with servile insurrection. By doing so, it legitimated the worst impulses of white Southerners and the massacres of black Union POWs that were to come. Still, Glory had one thing right. If a purpose of Davis’ declaration was to intimidate black men in federal service during the Civil War and discourage their enlistment in the Union Army, it had the opposite effect. Rather than driving them out of uniform it merely served to make African-American troops even more determined. So, while infamous, ironically, Jefferson Davis’ proclamation of December 23, 1862, likely actually advanced rather than hindered the cause of emancipation in the American Civil War.