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Subject to Death: The Confederate Response to Black Union Troops

As April has been proclaimed to be “Confederate Heritage Month,” we at This Cruel War wish to observe it from the perspective of history. We will begin this exploration by delving into Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ repulsion of even the thought of black United States troops – a practice that started but a year into the war.

It is commonly known that Davis ordered that captured black troops be “returned” to slavery (or even executed), and for their white officers to be shot dead. But how did this complete disregard for the rules of war come about? This policy, of course, is not celebrated as part of Confederate Heritage, but it must be remembered as part of Confederate History.

Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canal, Virginia. November 1864.
Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canal, Virginia. November 1864.

Shall Not Be Regarded as a Prisoner of War

When Union General David Hunter began to arm the liberated slaves along the South Carolina coast, it raised quite a stir in Washington. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1862, Lincoln’s Cabinet had debated it, finally deciding that it was too risky a political move. 1See first the July 13, 1862 diary entry by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles here. Then continue to Lincoln’s Message to Congress, July 14, 1862 here.

In Richmond, capital of the Confederate States, it was seen as an outrage. President Jefferson Davis himself placed it on the same level as the Federal order allowing the Union army to live off the land and kill citizens who fired upon his men.

“The newspapers received from the enemy’s country,” wrote Davis to General Robert E. Lee on August 1st, “announce as a fact that Major-General Hunter has armed slaves for the murder of their masters, and has thus done all in his power to inaugurate a servile war which is worse than that of the savage, inasmuch as it superadds other horrors to the indiscriminate slaughter of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” 2Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p835. Here.

When Davis learned of this, he urged General Lee to write to Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, asking if it were true. Having received no reply, Lee and Davis understood the Federal silence to equal acquiescence.

In Davis’ mind, the Unite States had allowed General Hunter to arm the slaves. Hunter, guilty of these “crimes and outrages,” was no longer to be treated as a soldier. He, along with another offer, General John Phelps, who raised black troops in New Orleans, but resigned when Lincoln forbade it, were to be held and treated at “outlaws.”

While Jefferson Davis focused upon these two officers, he broadened his view, declaring on August 21st that any commissioned Union officer “employed in drilling, organizing, or instructing slaves with a view to their armed service in this war … shall not be regarded as a prisoner of war but held in close confinement for execution as a felon at such time and place as the President shall order.” 3Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p857. Here.

For a time, General Hunter was “safe.” Lincoln had continually refused the idea to arm the freed slaves. However, a letter written by General Rufus Saxton, in command of the freed slaves in General Hunter’s department, was en route to Washington. In it, Saxton requested to arm 5,000 freed slaves to be armed for battle. In less than a week, the war would change forever, despite (and perhaps because of) the fears of the Confederate government.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. 1863-1865.
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. 1863-1865.

Davis’ Worst Dreams Come True

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton knew that it was because of slavery that the South was able to wage a large scale war. The slaves constituted a large portion of their military strength. Of course at this time, black men, free or slave, were not allowed to join either army. There were no black Confederates, just as there were no black Federals. The laws of both governments made sure of it.

Nevertheless, the Rebels greatly benefited from slavery, as it enabled the white masters to fill the ranks of the Confederate army. While the slaves toiled in the field, took care of the children, etc., it freed up more white males to pick up a musket and fight.

Then came General Rufus Saxton. He had been sent by Washington to oversee the newly freed slaves in Hunter’s Department of the South. After a tour of the area, he came to the only logical conclusion. He saw that the black population along the southern coasts was in extreme danger from the whites in the area. The Federal Army in the department wasn’t large enough to protect them, therefore, what other choice was there but to arm them?

Saxton had put this in writing on August 16th, two weeks after Davis’ initial threat that black troops were to be executed. He asked Secretary of War Stanton to allow him to raise “5,000 able-bodied men from among the contrabands in this department…to be uniformed, armed, and officered by men detailed from the Army.” 4Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p374-376. Here.

By the time Saxton’s letter to Stanton arrived, Davis’ notice had already made its way to Washington. It was, perhaps, that threat that caused Stanton to issue his order on August 25th.

In view of the small force under your command and the inability of the Government at the present time to increase it, in order to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion and protect the inhabitants thereof from captivity and murder by the enemy, you are also authorized to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service and their officers to be entitled to and receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service. 5Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p377. Here.

1st U.S. Colored Infantry.
1st U.S. Colored Infantry.

Benjamin Butler and Brutal Tyranny

Even while David Hunter was arming black troops, Union General Benjamin Butler was military commander of New Orleans. Beginning in May of 1862, Butler issued a series of proclamations keeping the city under martial law and curtailing freedom of speech, disallowing any secessionist banners or flags. Butler eventually pushed it so far that Lincoln saw fit to find him a new position. By November, Butler was ousted. 6See Chester G. Hearn When the Devil Came Down to Dixie (Louisiana State University Press, 2014) for a fine overview.

Despite Butler’s egress, Davis, was finally fed up with what he described as Butler’s “brutal tyranny.” On December 23, he issued an equally harsh proclamation – a daydream of what he’d like to do to Butler if he caught this miscreant.

It decreed that all commissioned officers in Butler’s command (obviously including Butler) “be declared not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare, but as robbers and criminals, deserving death; and that they and each of them be, whenever captured, reserved for execution.”

As was usual, Davis understood that the soldiers were unwitting participants of Butler’s sociopathic rampage and were thus to be treated “as prisoners of war, with kindness and humanity, and be sent home on the usual parole.”

That is, except for black soldiers. One of the things that Butler did that wasn’t brutally repugnant was the raising of units made up of both free and formerly enslaved black men. This did not sit well at all with Jefferson Davis, a slave owner who understood that giving freed slaves firearms was probably not in his best interest.

And so, Davis ordered that “all Negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” 7Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p906-908. Here.

Davis never mentioned what to do with free black men who had joined the Union army. Butler had raised three full regiments of black troops, totaling 3,122 men. Two of these regiments were made up almost entirely of former slaves, but the first was the opposite, consisting of members of the city’s well-to-do black community.

New Orleans was an odd place for many reasons, least of which was the origin of its black population. In 1860, 25,000 black people lived in the Crescent City. 11,000 of them were free. Of those who were free, many had come from New England, while others came from such places as Germany, England, France and other places in Europe. They had never been slaves.

But, if Davis’ policy was enacted, they would simply be lumped in with the “Negro slaves captured in arms” clause. According to Davis and the Confederate government, these black men (even the ones born free) were not human beings, they were property.

Unidentified black soldier.
Unidentified black soldier.

Black Troops “Cannot in Any Way Be Recognized as Soldiers”

Turning slave property into a regiment of human soldiers, according to Jefferson Davis, was punishable by death. If a white man put a gun in the hand of a black man, both he and the black man, according to Davis, deserved to die – even if the black man had never been property in the first place.

Davis decreed that captured black soldiers were “to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” A few weeks earlier, he, along with his Secretary of War James Seddon, made it gruesomely clear what these laws were.

In Georgia, mid-November, four black Union soldiers had been captured. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the department, wrote to Richmond asking what should be done.

Apparently, some Confederate cavalry had landed on an island off the South Carolina coast. While they were there, they “encounters six negroes in Federal uniforms with arms (muskets) in their hands.” Two were killed and four were captured. “One of these negroes, a boy named Manuel,” the report continued, “is now in the possession of Messrs. Blount & Dawnson, negro brokers in this city, for sale….”

In order to prevent the sale, Beauregard had placed the black Union soldier in a local jail to await the decision from Richmond concerning what to do with the prisoners.

“I most earnestly request that these negroes be made an example of,” pleaded Beauregard’s underling, General H.W. Mercer, commanding the Rebels who captured the soldiers. “They are slaves taken with arms in hand against their masters and wearing the abolition uniform. Some swift and terrible punishment should be inflicted that their fellows may be deterred from following their example.”

This wasn’t the first time either Beauregard or Mercer had encountered black United States soldiers, and Beaurgeard wrote to Richmond on November 17th.

Shortly after, Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, gave his short opinion “that the negro be executed as an example.” 8Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p945-946. Here.

As this was an important step, Seddon thought it best that he discuss the matter with President Davis. This was done the following week, and it was decided by them that slaves in arms were in “flagrant rebellion” and so “are subject to death by the laws of every slave-holding State.” They agreed that these former slaves “cannot be recognized in any way as soldiers subject to the rules of war and to trial by military courts; yet for example and to repress any spirit of insubordination it is deemed essential that slaves in armed insurrection should meet condign punishment. Summary execution must therefore be inflicted on those taken.”

They made only one consideration so that things didn’t get out of hand and a massacre of black soldiers didn’t spontaneously explode. To prove they were serious about killing black people, but somehow not ghoulish fiends, they deemed it “judicious that the discretion of deciding and giving the order of execution should be reposed in the general commanding the special locality of the capture.” 9Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p954. Here.

This wasn’t a war being waged simply to keep the slaves enslaved. It was being fought to keep the white race supreme. What other conclusion could ultimately be drawn?

(death) Gordon, a runaway slave from Mississippi, in tattered clothes; bare back showing scars; and in Union Civil War uniform.  Harper's weekly, 1863 July 4.
Gordon, a runaway slave from Mississippi, in tattered clothes; bare back showing scars; and in Union Civil War uniform. Harper’s weekly, 1863 July 4.

Davis, Death and the Emancipation Proclamation

At this same time, President Lincoln was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation. Along with perpetually freeing the slaves in Confederate-held territories, it also authorized the United States army to “recognize and maintain the freedom” of the newly-released slaves. 10Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation. Here. To many in the South, including Jefferson Davis, this was nondifferent from inciting a slave revolt.

In his annual address to the Confederate Congress, Davis asserted that he would not speak on the absurdity of such an act: “We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination….”

The slaves, according to Davis, were happy in their lot. They were “peaceful and contented.” So, he wondered, why had Lincoln encouraged them “to a general assassination of their masters”?

And so Davis had a plan. Since the Emancipation Proclamation was a military act, it was the military officers who were guilty of inciting this “general assassination.” He decreed that any commissioned officers in the Union army captured by Confederate forces were to be “dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.”

This meant, of course, that he wished for all captured Union officers to be executed. The enlisted soldiers, being apparent pawns, would be treated as normal.

Tossing military matters aside, Davis moved on to the politics of slavery. This servile insurrection, this rising up of the “inferior race” to assassinate their masters was, in reality, “the true nature of the designs of the party which elevated to power the present occupant of the Presidential chair at Washington.”

Though President Lincoln had said numerous times that he didn’t want to end slavery in the South, Davis railed that these were all lies. He went on to cite several pre- and early-war supposed olive branches held out by his Northern counterpart.

What this Emancipation Proclamation was really showing was the Union’s “inability to subjugate the South by force of arms.” It was a way to get the nations of Europe, who had abolished slavery long ago, to find “justification in withholding our just claims to formal recognition.”

But what this Proclamation really meant was that the “restoration of the Union has been rendered forever impossible by the adoption of a measure which from its very nature neither admits of retraction nor can coexist with union.”

Slavery, according to Davis, was essential. Without it, the United States could not go on. While the North had more than enough laborers to work the mines, fields and factories, the South had no such luxury. In order for the Confederacy to even begin a war of this magnitude, it needed slavery. Without them, the war would could not have been waged. If the “inferior race” rose up from their “peaceful and contented” slavery, simply put, the South would lose the war and lose the bid for their own nation. Without slavery, the South’s war, it’s culture, and it’s heritage were nothing. 11Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 2, p336-350. Here.

By January of 1863, black Americans had been in uniform and under arms for several months. With their increased presence upon the battlefield, Confederate troops would have to decide for themselves how they would treat the black soldiers of the United States army. In many cases, as will be much further explored over the course of this so-called Confederate History Month, they were sold into slavery, executed upon surrendering or simply massacred. We will hear from the Confederates themselves of such inhuman and despotic acts of barbarism that took place across the South and even into the North.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Subject to Death: The Confederate Response to Black Union Troops

  1. I look forward to being able to make this suggestion to you–we co-author a biography of Ben Butler–one of the more-maligned political generals in the Union Army who, imho, was a pretty good guy underneath it all.

    1. But doesn’t his autobiography do the work for us already? (haha)

      It sounds like a lovely idea for someone, and I can’t wait to see the final results someday. 🙂

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