The Confederate Vice President Threatens to Arm the Slaves

On August 3, 1863, a curious item appeared in the pages of The Daily Dispatch, one of the newspapers in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia. Appearing in a section of the paper devoted to summarizing news from the northern press, it read:

The N. Y. Tribune has a letter dated Richmond, July 16th, stating that the late mission of A. H. Stephens was to prevail upon our Government to desist from arming negroes, or they would retaliate by arming and organizing all the slaves in the South to operate against our armies, under their masters as officers.

The Dispatch referred to a letter the New York Tribune had published days before in its July 31 edition, written by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. Stephens had sent the letter to the Tribune in the wake of his abortive peace mission in early July 1863. After Chancellorsville and anticipating another Confederate victory as Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, Alexander Stephens thought he was uniquely positioned to open peace negotiations with Abraham Lincoln because of their prewar friendship dating from the late 1840s when they had served together in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jefferson Davis, wary of his rogue Vice President, nonetheless gave him authority to cross the lines to discuss prisoner exchanges, although he no doubt knew Stephens would do as he pleased once he got to Washington, D.C. However, the mission proved abortive because after Union victory at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg in the first days of July 1863, Abraham Lincoln saw no reason to treat with his old friend.

Not to be denied a moment in the spotlight, the restive Vice President of the Confederacy decided to address Lincoln and other Union leaders through the northern press. So on July 16, 1863, he wrote and dispatched a letter north, which appeared in Horace Greeley’s Tribune, a paper which while generally Republican in its beliefs did not hesitate to take independent stands and criticize President Lincoln when its pugnacious editor thought it proper to do so. With Confederate independence off the table as a realistic point to plead in the wake of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Alexander Stephens decided to make his July 16 letter about a subject of great consternation in the Confederacy in Summer 1863: the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, something many white Southerners saw as akin to the federal government fomenting a slave revolt against them. However, rather than simply excoriate the Lincoln administration on this point, Alexander H. Stephens made a threat which would have struck most other Confederates at the time as equally extreme, but which was the harbinger a coming debate in the Confederacy about whether it too should arm the slaves.

Referring to himself in the third person, Stephens wrote:

The primary object of the Vice-President’s mission was to protest, in the name of his Government and people, against the mustering and the arming of the blacks, which now constitutes almost the only clear feature of your policy. He came to implore you, in the name of a people whose resources must have surprised you, of a Government whose ability you have frankly acknowledged, of soldiers whose courage and devotion and endurance you have felt, to this consummation not to come at last. He came to assure you, on the good faith of his Government, on the simple truth of his fellow-country-men, the simple truth, that [emphasis in the original] not one single regiment or corps of negroes has ever been brought into Confederate service, to be turned against you. He came to remind you that such negroes as have from time to time been found on breastworks and in trenches have been caught with spades only or picks in their hands–that such as have been found in regiments–an insignificant number–have been in all cases body-servants, sometimes of officers, sometimes of privates, who of their own will, out of the love you know the bear us, have chosen to follow their masters to the death. And these you have found among your prisoners. He could have told you, if diplomacy admitted sentiment, (God save the mark!) of many such “chattels,” some of them white-haired, begging, stealing, fighting their way home again, to the “old missus” and the old place, with all that was left of the “young massa”–a lock of hair or a trinket.

But no matter for that. He came to talk of you of self-preservation, of retaliation, and all that’s shocking in the meaning of that word. He came to tell of you of the native devil that has slept so long, to be awoke at last, in the bosoms of a simple, dependent, affectionate race. He came to implore you in the name of God not to do this abominable thing.

Else he would have to fall back on upon statistics and the grim phraseologies of war, of the 4,000,000 of negroes that appear in the tablets of your census for 1860 are the working hands of both sexes only. That number does not include the superannuated, or the infants. Out of these 4,000,000, at least 750,000 able-bodied fellows, loving and trusting their masters, and ready to follow them into the mouths of your cannon (ah! do not continue to befool yourself of the question of ties), can be enrolled, armed, drilled in three months. They can be officered in every grade by their own masters, those who have seen the most service, and won most honor. They can be segregated, regiment by regiment, with white troops. In all the departments, the quartermasters, the commissariat and the medical, white officers can administer for them. Superior commands in the black regiments can be made the meed of gallant service in the white. In fine, the entire system, as it operates in the Sepoy service in India, and as it has been modified by distinguished British officers at the request of our Government to meet the peculiarities of our people–peculiarities which constitute incalculable advantages, presenting, as they do, love and confidence in place and hate and jealousy and suspicion–can be put in working order at once.

What should be made of this letter, in addition to Alexander Stephens’ delusion that slaves loved and would die for their owners, and his propensity to private enterprise independent of or even in open defiance of President Davis? Stephens was not the first person in the Confederacy to broach the idea of arming the slaves. Some ordinary citizens had broached the idea before. Civil War Emancipation discussed a letter written in May 1861 by a Georgia man, Leroy Pope, to the Confederate government advocating a plan similar to Stephens. But this was the first time the idea had been advanced by such a major figure in the Confederacy, and six months before Confederate General Patrick Cleberne would make his famous proposal to arm the slaves.

Harpweek has a nice succinct article on the Confederate debate in 1864 and early 1865 over arming the slaves on behalf of their cause, so there no need to summarize it here. To make a long story short, despite the support of men like Alexander H. Stephens the idea of black soldiers in the rebel army did not gain widespread support until the last desperate days of the Confederacy, but not before a northern cartoonist so effectively scoffed at the notion that slaves would ever fight for a cause whose main raison d’etre was to keep them enslaved.


Harper’s Weekly, November 5, 1864

However, if Alexander H. Stephens’ letter of July 16, 1863, has any historical significance for the ongoing sesquicentennial of the Civil War, besides showing how early a major Confederate figure broached the idea of arming the slaves on behalf of their cause, it is to demonstrate (as if it really needs to be) just how ridiculous was the idea that tens or even hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy. Why would Stephens be threatening Abraham Lincoln with the prospect of rebel slave soldiers if they already existed?

In any case, it is little wonder that Abraham Lincoln ignored Alexander Stephens’ overture through the New York Tribune. Jefferson Davis appears to have done the same. In July 1863, few other Confederate leaders would seriously entertain the idea of black soldiers in grey. It went against everything the rebels were fighting for. So why should Lincoln? Especially since everything the slaves had done in the war heretofore, fleeing to Union lines in the many thousands, proved that the threat of Alexander H. Stephens to unleash slaves against the Union was not only fanciful, but also arguably delusional? It was a curious threat, but a useful one for scholars 150 years later as they seek to discredit the ridiculous notion among modern neo-Confederates that many thousands of African Americans fought for a cause that wished to keep them in bondage.

Sources: 1); 2)

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