“If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong”: Confederate Howell Cobb on black enlistment


Howell_Cobb-crop
Howell Cobb, southern politician and brigadier general in the Confederate States of America army: “The day you make soldiers of (slaves) is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
Source: Image by Matthew Brady; from the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-USZ62-110081, LC-USZ62-28297

By January 1865, “gloom and despondency rule(d) the hour,” according to Howell Cobb, an army general of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was losing the American Civil War. Recent Union military successes and a shortage of manpower forced Confederates to seek ways to bolster their forces and stave off the destruction of their nation.

One potential source of soldiers was the enslaved population. At the start of the war, some 3,500,000 slaves resided in the Confederate States; they amounted to 38% of the Confederacy’s population. As a matter of law, regulation, and custom, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army. Slave enlistment would mean legal, philosophical, and cultural change that was both profound and enormous. The idea became the subject of heated debate throughout the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee, the top general of the Confederate army, and arguably the most popular military or governmental figure in the Confederacy, endorsed using slaves as soldiers in January 1865.

One of the most stinging critiques of black enlistment came from Howell Cobb. Prior to the Civil War, Cobb served in the US Congress and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1849 to 1851. He was also the 40th Governor of Georgia (1851–1853) and Secretary of Treasury under President James Buchanan (1857–1860). After Lincoln’s election, he championed the slave states’ secession from the Union. After the shooting war began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, Cobb joined the Confederate army. He became a brigadier general in early 1862.

In January 1865, Cobb wrote a letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and offered his views on the use of slaves as soldiers. Cobb did not merely criticize the idea; he condemned it. Using slaves as soldiers was “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” he claimed. And he lamented that Robert E. Lee – who was Cobb’s military commander – was being used to promote this policy.

As Alexander Stephens, a fellow Georgian and Vice President of the Confederacy put it in March 1861, the cornerstone of their new nation rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Black enlistment fundamentally challenged that belief, and by extension, challenged the reason for the Confederacy’s very existence. As Cobb saw it, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong… The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”

But slaves would not make good soldiers, he said; “as a class (slaves) are wanting in every qualification of a soldier.” He warned that “you can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves.”

Howell was also fearful that slave enlistment would drive off the Confederacy’s white soldiers. And not just because whites would not fight alongside black troops; he was afraid that white troops would use the influx of black soldiers as an excuse to “retire” from the army and relieve themselves of the duties and dangers of wartime service.

Cobb went on to say that, if given a choice, he would rather take the extreme measure of freeing the slaves to get the support of England and France, than resort to black enlistment. (Many believed that anti-slavery sentiment in England and France prevented them from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation.) Although one wonders if that statement was merely a rhetorical flourish; it’s hard to imagine Cobb stomaching either black emancipation or black enlistment.

Cobb’s hope was to find other means to recruit white men into the army. Whatever those means were, they either weren’t implemented or weren’t enough: in March of 1865 the Confederate government passed a law enabling slave enlistment. But it was too little too late: General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, and that began the end of the Confederacy.

This is from Cobb’s later to James Seddon, dated January 8, 1865.

Hon. JAMES A. SEDDON,
Secretary of War, Richmond, Va.:

SIR: Your letter of the 30th of December (was) received by yesterday’s mail. I beg to assure you that I have spared no efforts or pains to prosecute vigorously the recruiting of our Army through the conscript camp. It is true, as you say, there are many liable to conscription who have not been reached, and for reasons I have heretofore given I fear never will be reached. Rest assured, however, that I will not cease my efforts in that regard. In response to your inquiries (about) how our Army is to be recruited, I refer with strength and confidence to the policy of opening the door for volunteers… It is in my opinion not only the best but the only mode of saving the Army, and every day it is postponed weakens its strength and diminishes the number that could be had by it. The freest, broadest, and most unrestricted system of volunteering is the true policy, and cannot be too soon resorted to.

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted.

You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor with which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops.

You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the Presidents message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.

If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery, and thereby purchase their aid, than to resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army.

Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can by the volunteering policy[1] get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men. For heavens sake try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men by resorting to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.

Sincerely yours, HOWELL COBB,
Major-General.

Notes:

[1] Cobb apparently proposed a recruitment policy that would create all-volunteer or mainly-volunteer units and limit or even eliminate the use of conscription. This proposal was rejected by the Jefferson Davis administration (Davis was the president of the Confederate States.) See letter from the Confederacy’s Secretary of War, James Seddon, to Cobb dated January 19, 1865.

{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 ““If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong”: Confederate Howell Cobb on black enlistment

  1. Acknowledging the human potential of slaves posed an existential threat, in their view, to white southerners. If, indeed, their “whole theory of slavery” was wrong, then the social foundation upon which the slave south had been standing for 245 years would come crashing down. This was an alternative too terrible for many of them to face up to.

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