Confederate General Robert E. Lee, near the end of the Civil War: Enlist and emancipate the slaves; we can manage the ‘evil consequences’


608px-Robert_Edward_Lee
Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001

Desperate times require desperate measures. And in January of 1865, Robert E. Lee, the general in chief of the Confederate States of America, was desperate.

The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South Carolina; and the Confederacy’s position in Virginia was being made tenuous by pressure from the forces of Union general Ulysses Grant and a lack of manpower.

Given their circumstances, Confederates began to debate a fundamental shift in political and military policy: the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army, along with emancipation for those who served. Andrew Hunter, a Virginia politician, wrote to General Robert E. Lee to get his opinion on the controversy. Lee responded: slaves should be employed as soldiers “without delay.”

It’s not like Lee preferred to make this radical shift in policy. He maintained that the “relation of master and slave” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races.” But he argued that the use of slaves as soldiers would “increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.” And even more, it might counteract the horrifying prospect that slaves, having been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation, would continue to take arms for the Union, and destroy slavery on the Union’s terms and/or the slaves’ terms in the event of Confederate defeat.

Lee went even further in his policy proposal: he recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the slaves, not just soldiers and their families. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation offered to immediately free all the slaves; Confederates needed to come close to that offer, he reasoned, to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. Yes, freedom for the slaves might mean hardship for whites, but Union victory would be even worse. Better to give freedom to the slaves and defeat the Union, than to have the Union give the slaves freedom and defeat the Confederacy in the process. Lee believed that if employing slaves as soldiers “ends in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.” Lee did not detail what “means” would be devised to manage the “evil consequences” of freedom for the bondsmen.

This is an excerpt from General Lee’s January 11, 1865, letter to Andrew Hunter (from The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 4 – Volume 3, page 1012-13):

Dear Sir:

Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.

Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all… Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength. His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.

I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which must be produced upon our social institutions. My opinion is that we should employ them without delay. I believe that with proper regulations they can be made efficient soldiers. They possess the physical qualifications in an eminent degree. Long habits of obedience and subordination, coupled with the moral influence which in our country the white man possesses over the black, furnish an excellent foundation for that discipline which is the best guaranty of military efficiency. Our chief aim should be to secure their fidelity.

There have been formidable armies composed of men having no interest in the cause for which they fought beyond their pay or the hope of plunder. But it is certain that the surest foundation upon which the fidelity of an army can rest, especially in a service which imposes peculiar hardships and privations, is the personal interest of the soldier in the issue of the contest. Such an interest we can give our negroes by giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing at the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service.

We should not expect slaves to fight for prospective freedom when they can secure it at once by going to the enemy, in whose service they will incur no greater risk than in ours. The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect of the measures I have suggested upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation. As that will be the result of the continuance of the war, and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause.

The employment of negro troops under regulations similar in principle to those above indicated would, in my opinion, greatly increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent. I think we could dispense with the reserve forces except in cases of necessity.

It would disappoint the hopes which our enemies base upon our exhaustion, deprive them in a great measure of the aid they now derive from black troops, and thus throw the burden of the war upon their own people. In addition to the great political advantages that would result to our cause from the adoption of a system of emancipation, it would exercise a salutary influence upon our whole negro population, by rendering more secure the fidelity of those who become soldiers, and diminishing the inducements to the rest to abscond.

I can only say in conclusion that whatever measures are to be adopted should be adopted at once. Every day’s delay increases the difficulty. Much time will be required to organize and discipline the men, and action may be deferred until it is too late.

In March 1865, the Confederate government finally approved legislation to allow slaves to join the Confederate army. In April 1865, General Lee surround to General Grant at Appomattox.

{In March 1865, the Confederates States allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. This is one of a series of posts that looks at the Road to Slave Enlistment in the Confederacy.}

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2 thoughts on “Confederate General Robert E. Lee, near the end of the Civil War: Enlist and emancipate the slaves; we can manage the ‘evil consequences’

  1. Reblogged this on Jubilo! The Emancipation Century and commented:

    On March 23, 1865, after a period of intense debate, the Confederate States of America embarked on a plan to enlist slaves into their armies. This is the first of a series of posts that will examine that event.

    First up is Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s important letter, in which he advocates for slave enlistment.

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