Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details
In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”
Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:
The public journals of the North have been received containing a proclamation dated on the first day of the present month signed by the President of the United States in which he orders and declares all slaves within ten States of the Conferderacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy.
We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgement 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, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.”
Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses. So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.
Davis undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many Confederates when he spoke of “our detestation” to “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” To him, the Proclamation was clearly an incitement to violence. And Union officers woud pay the price for that: Davis warns that Union men who command blacks will be punished like “criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.” One penalty for such crimes was execution.
The harshest consequences were predicted for the “several millions of human beings of an inferior race.” They, he said, were “doomed to extermination.” Black men would not be seen as honorable foes on the battlefield, but rather, as wretched peons who would be destroyed en masse.
Was Davis’s talk of extermination merely a case of angry bluster, mainly meant to exhort Confederates and excoriate Lincoln, or did he really mean it? My guess is that Davis genuinely felt that if the Proclamation led to massive numbers of slave rebellions, then the white South would, if only out of self-defense, decimate the black South. But I don’t know that Davis actually believed that the Proclamation and its offer of liberation posed a real danger. Indeed, Davis says his anger is tempered by a “profound contempt for the impotent rage which (the proclamation) discloses.” I don’t think he believed that the Union had the ability to put the slaves in a position to be a threat. Of course, this was in January of 1863. Things would change over the next two years.