An artist in Harper’s Weekly (November 25, 1864) humorously imagining what would have happened had the Confederates actually sent black soldiers into the field.
Recently, the legend of black Confederate soldiers was revived by an article in The Root by John Stauffer. Stauffer’s piece had a few defenders, but many more detractors. Yet like a Hollywood super villain, Stauffer did prove that the notion that substantial numbers of African Americans served under arms for the Confederacy refuses to die in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. And there is plenty of evidence in that regard.
One of the most potent facts that rules against the existence of large numbers of black Confederate soldiers was an event that occurred 150 years ago today. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress in Richmond passed a law authorizing the recruitment of African Americans into the Confederate Army. The law’s text began.
That, in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.
If there were already substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers under arms, why was the Confederate Congress passing a bill to authorize their recruitment? The timing of the law also is interesting. It came only a few weeks before the fall of Richmond and the final collapse of the Confederacy. Clearly, given that the preservation of slavery had been at the heart of southern secession in 1860-61, it took the Confederacy being in extremis for its national legislature to pass a law so contrary to its reason for being.
For the service of black men in the Confederate Army would call into question the very basis of the Confederacy in the most fundamental way. As rebel leaders debated the idea of black recruitment in early 1865, Howell Cobb, a founding father of the Confederacy, and at the time a major general in its army, put the matter eloquently in a letter the Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon. He wrote:
The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.
The last sentence was the most telling: “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Of course, black Union soldiers had been proving exactly that point by their service since 1862. But Cobb was correct in the sense that for the Confederacy to recruit black men into its ranks was to call into question the entire Confederate project. That Howell Cobb by early 1865, was among the dwindling opponents of this idea speaks to the rapidly rising desperation of Confederate leaders in the last months of the war, and their readiness to resort to desperate measures to stave off final defeat.
Still, it is telling that even as they authorized black recruitment into the Confederate Army, the Congress in Richmond sought to make sure it would not threaten slavery. First, it limited recruitment to no more than 25 percent of the male slave population of military age in each state. Second, it did not promise freedom to black men that might enlist, leaving that decision to states and individual owners.
Given that the law made no provisions of freedom for slaves that enlisted, of course, it called into question why any slave would be motivated to serve unless forced to? And gave them every incentive to desert to Union forces at the first opportunity (see the image above). Hence, the March 13 law was an exercise in fantasy. The army administration was not able to draw up an order to implement the legislation until March 25, and on April 1, Lee’s lines in front of Petersburg finally collapsed and Confederate forces had to evacuate nearby Richmond the following day. On April 3, Union forces entered and took control of the city. The final surrender of Lee’s army quickly followed, and the Confederacy soon thereafter unraveled.
While a handful of black soldiers might have been recruited in the week or so before Richmond’s final fall, no evidence exists that any of them ever made it to the front to shore up Robert E. Lee’s crumbling defenses. The decision of the Confederate Congress to authorize their enlistment on March 13, 1865 was a classic case of “too little, too late.” But it does constitute potent evidence that no substantial numbers of African Americans ever served the Confederacy under arms during the Civil War.
Sources: 1) http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/csenlist.htm; 2) http://books.google.com/books?id=N48LAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=%22howell+cobb%22+%22soldiers+of+slaves%22&source=bl&ots=kxO5xZwwr3&sig=HV6CCacydzUmjOpdEhjJ3uKR8rU&hl=en&ei=d8fETLXiB4G0lQfN9IEG&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22howell%20cobb%22%20%22soldiers%20of%20slaves%22&f=false