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Early Confederate Attempts to Arm (But Not Emancipate) the Slaves

Prior to the Civil War, black American slaves had fought in every conflict. Sometimes they were forced, other times they were allowed to volunteer, and were even granted freedom as a reward for their service. This reward descended from a long tradition of emancipating slaves who risked their lives for their masters in a time of war. Usually, the prospect of freedom was the only reason for a slave to fight.

During the Civil War, a few Confederate citizens offered their slaves so that they might be used not only for digging trenches, but in combat. Never in any such discussion was the idea of emancipation entertained. Quite the contrary – the promise to keep the slaves enslaved following the conflict was floated in hopes of gaining favor. Nevertheless, all offers were refused until the very end.

In this short piece, let’s take a look at the history of slavery in American warfare, as well as the refusal of the Confederate government to arm its slaves.

Four men of the Hessen-Darmstadt Leib-Grenadier-Garde, ca. 1780. By Johann Michael Petzinger
Four men of the Hessen-Darmstadt Leib-Grenadier-Garde, ca. 1780. By Johann Michael Petzinger

The Historical Precedence of Slave-Soldiers

The idea of offering American slaves their freedom in exchange for military service has a somewhat shaky history. From the middle 1600s, black people had been barred from owning guns in the colonies. As militias were raised, blacks were usually forbidden to join. Once in a while, such as a 1703 attack from Native Americans in South Carolina, slaves were armed and sent into battle. The slave was offered freedom if they might “kill or take one or more of our enemies,” as long as there as a white person to vouch for them. The same freedom was offered if the slave was wounded. The slave’s owner would then be financially compensated. 1Statutes at Large, No. 219, XXIII, XXIV. As printed in The Statutes at Large of South Carolina: Acts relating to Charleston…, David J. McCord, ed. (Columbia, A.S. Johnston, 1840) 33-34. Here.

African-American from the 1st Rhode Island. 88 slaves joined the regiment, and all were freed following the war.
African-American from the 1st Rhode Island. 88 slaves joined the regiment, and all were freed following the war.

The French & Indian War saw both sides offering liberation to the slaves who joined the armies. New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts colonies all had black men side-by-side with the whites in their militias during the conflict. The same was true for French and Spanish forces in Louisiana and Florida. 2William Weir, The Encyclopedia of African American Military History (Prometheus Books, 2004) 103.

In 1775, at the start of the American Revolution, England’s Lord Dunmore held that “all indentured servants, Negroes, or others, free that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops.” 3Catherine Clinton The Black Soldier: 1492 to the Present (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) 9. While Colonial militias allowed free blacks, the Continental Army wasn’t so lenient. In January of 1776, free blacks who had already served in militias were allowed to remain, but all additional blacks, slaves especially, were barred. Some slaves were forced to build fortifications, but none were allowed to be armed. Some states ignored the law, and others allowed slaves to be substituted for whites who did not care to fight.

As the war drew on, several states, including Maryland, recruited and even drafted slaves, though without an offer of freedom. 4Michael Lee Lanning African Americans in the Revolutionary War (Citadel Press, 2000) 47-48, 63-64. Though several states, including Virginia, would eventually offer liberation to those slaves who fought, the vast majority of American slaves who joined in the war, fought for the British, who promised them their freedom (and in some cases, actually delivered). 5Junius P. Rodriguez Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World (Routledge, 2007) 30.

The same scenario played out in the War of 1812, as the British offered liberation to American slaves, while the United States balked. New York held out this offer, but few other states did likewise. 6Johnathan Sutherland African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (ABC-CLIO, 2004) 433. From then on, however, policy had ruled out arming the slaves.

George Armstrong George Armstrong Custer, seated with Lieut. Washington, a Confederate prisoner and his slave.
George Armstrong George Armstrong Custer, seated with Lieut. Washington, a Confederate prisoner and his slave.

The Birth of a Nation

The first such Confederate suggestion during the Civil War might have come from Richard S. Ewell, shortly after the Battle of First Manassas. As the story goes, following the battle, General Ewell met with a delighted Jefferson Davis who predicted a quick Southern victory. Ewell disagreed, arguing that but one thing would secure independence: “Emancipating the slaves and arming them.” Davis had no taste for this, claiming that the entire South might revolt in disgust. “May be so,” Ewell agreed, “but it will paralyze the North.” 7Bruce Levine Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006) 17. Also, Donald C. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life (University of North Carolina Press, 1998) 139.

Later, Davis completely denied the conversation ever happened, but in an 1862 letter, Ewell complained to his niece that it was “astonishing to me that our people do not pass laws to form Regiments of blacks.” In it, Ewell makes no mention of emancipation or that he had previously talked to Davis about it. 8Donald C. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life (University of North Carolina Press, 1998) 139.

Richard Ewell
Richard Ewell

The enslavers offering the government their slaves to be trained and regimented for battle most likely knew that history and precedence were not on their side. Public opinion on arming black people of any status was almost totally against the idea. Still, some masters did step forward to offer their property for the cause. But this offer was between the slave owner and his government – the opinions of the slaves were not part of the equation. Additionally, there is no indication whatsoever that any serious offers would give the slaves their freedom after the war.

Even before the fighting started, a slave owner from Mississippi asked Governor John J. Pettus to allow slaves to bear arms so that “masters may on their own premises drill and practice their own slaves.” Another enslaver from the state wrote in November of the same year, suggesting that the government look to both white and black populations as it was foolish “to attempt the defense of the country with only one of these elements of its power.” Again, no mention was made of liberation. 9Bruce Levine Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006) 17.

The government in Richmond was also petitioned to allow slaves. In July, just before Manassas, W.S. Turner of Helena, Arkansas wrote to his friend Leroy P. Walker, the Confederate Secretary of War. Speaking for himself “and many others in this district,” Turner wished “to ascertain if we could get negro regiments received for Confederate service, officered, of course, by white men.”

All he wanted in return was “arms, clothing, and provisions, and usual pay for officers and not one cent pay for negroes.” Despite this slight, Turner boasted that “our negroes are too good to fight Lincoln hirelings, but as they present to love negroes so much we want to show them how much the true Southern cotton-patch negro loves them in return.” As the war went on, Turner would learn for himself just how much his slaves, escaping in droves and joining the United States army, loved the Confederacy.

Turner was “satisfied they are easy disciplined and less trouble than whites in camp, and will fight desperately as long as they have a single white officer living.” He knew of at least 100 slaves that could be offered. Like Ewell, Turner argued that “the sooner we bring a strong negro force against the hirelings the sooner we shall have peace….” 10Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p482.

Governor LeRoy Walker
Governor LeRoy Walker

Turner’s letter is very telling. Not even the slightest thought was given to compensation, let alone emancipation for the slaves. They were simply property, like cattle, to be used. They were tools who could be, thought Turner, forced to fight against the United States. Their own will was replaced by Turner’s assumption that they felt as he did himself.

Richmond’s reply came a couple of weeks later. Speaking on the Secretary of War’s behalf, the letter declined Turner’s offer while agreeing “that almost every slave would cheerfully aid his master in the work of hurling back the fanatical invader.” There was, it read, “a superabundance of our own color tendering their services to the Government in its day of peril….” 11Ibid., p529.

Similar offers to conscript enslaved blacks would crop up now and then, each being turned aside, until the last few months of the war. Even offers of free people of mixed race were denied by Richmond if they could not be “naturally and properly discriminated from Negroes,” otherwise, they could be enlisted as laborers “for subordinate working purposes.” 12James Benson Sellers Slavery in Alabama (University of Alabama Press, 1950) 389.

It would not be until the war’s waning months – far too late – that the Confederate government would allow slave owners to enlist their slaves into the army. Even still, the March 1865 act did not promise freedom, ruling “that nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.” 13Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 3, pp. 1161–62.

Depiction of the Haitian Revolution - a fate many in the South feared if their own slaves were armed.
Depiction of the Haitian Revolution – a fate many in the South feared if their own slaves were armed.

While certain and select Confederate individuals may have suggested emancipation for those slaves forced to fight against the United States forces, the vast majority of slave owners, including politicians, would hear of no such thing. To address the question “Why would the slaves fight for the South?” seems almost pointless. It was never considered an important question by those suggesting slave-soldiers during the war. They simply assumed that their slaves would obey, fight and perish for their masters’ cause.

Even the idea of officially arming the slaves was seen as nearly impossible until desperation left no other choice. Liberation as a reward for service, as had been given by England and even ancient Rome, was never seriously on the table. The Southern slaves would have been expected to kill and die with just as much conviction as they had working the soil or gathering the crop. They were merely a means to an end, their own freedom sacrificed – as was true with their ancestors in the American Revolution – for the freedom of their white masters.

soldiers armslaves-charge

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.