Fifty acres and a slave: One man’s not-so-new proposal to attract more recruits for the Confederate army


Slaves
An offer they couldn’t refuse?: “Lincoln has tempted thousands of men into his Army by offering reward. I now propose to outbid him… We can command thousands of men from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and France by offering them a home in the sunny South and a servant.” Refer to the letter from J. W. Ellis below.
Image Source: Unattributed photograph at the website “Dr. Sherrod’s Class -Advanced Placement & Dual Credit U. S. History – Slavery”

The best parting gift ever? How about 50 acres and a slave for every non-slaveholder and non-landowner who enlists in and musters out of the Confederate army to help win the Civil War? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Or at least, that’s what J. W. Ellis, writing from Raleigh, North Carolina, seemed to think, when he suggested that extraordinary – and as it turns out, not unique – idea to Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis. And Ellis was serious.

It was January 1865 when Ellis mailed his proposal to president Davis, a time when all was not well with the Confederate States. As mentioned in two previous posts (see here and here), the Confederacy was reeling from recent military losses to the Union army and a shortage of men for the Confederate army.

I don’t know anything about J. W. Ellis. But he was clearly a pro-slavery man, and concerned that ways be found to fill the ranks of the depleted Confederate army. So he came up with an interesting, but not novel idea: give every new enlistee in the Confederate army an enlistment bounty of 50 acres and a slave. This would only be given to men who were non-slaveholders or non-landowners.

Readers may be wondering, is this in any way related to the Union’s 40 acres and a mule plan, which would give land and an equine to former slaves in the southeast United States? The answer is… maybe. The 40 acres and a mule policy, promulgated as Special Field Orders No. 15, was issued by General William Sherman on January 16, 1865. Ellis’ letter to Jefferson Davis is dated January 29, 1865, a scant two weeks later. Depending on how well known Sherman’s plan was, Ellis might have been inspired to do suggest similar. But in his letter to Confederate president Davis, Sherman’s order is not mentioned. Maybe, possibly, perhaps, Ellis’ proposal was informed by Sherman’s plan, but I don’t know.

In any event, Ellis’ idea made good sense, at least to himself. This new recruitment policy would at once:
• incentivize un-enlisted and eligible white southerners to join the Confederate army
• attract (white) men from around the world to the Confederate cause
• eliminate the rich man’s war/poor man’s fight conundrum, in which many non-slaveholders were angry that they were fighting to protect the property of wealthy slaveowners
• cause Union soldiers to switch sides to grab this enlistment bounty
• strengthen support for slavery throughout the Confederacy
• eliminate the need for the drastic measure of enlisting slaves in the Confederate army.

Getting slaves wouldn’t be too difficult, Ellis believed. Slaveholders could contribute some of their slaves; taxes and donations could be used to raise money for slave purchases; state governments could provide some help; any captured black Union soldiers could be offered as slaves; and free blacks in the Confederacy could be thrown under the bus offered as slaves.

United States history would have been a lot more interesting if the Confederacy adopted this policy and it had half as much success as Ellis anticipated. But it was never implemented by the Davis administration. But it is a part of the historical record, and so we get to see it today. This is the text of Ellis’ letter:

His Excellency Jefferson Davis

SIR: It is not to be presumed that the press of public duty leaves you much time to read private letters, nevertheless I suppose that should you find a moment’s leisure you will not object to hearing the views of your countrymen, however humble, who are struggling with you for independence. How this war can be successfully managed, brought to a speedy and honorable end, bringing us independence, are questions that are upon every tongue.

I propose to give you my plan briefly: Declare by law that every soldier who, has or will enlist in our Army, and who at the time of such enlistment was not a slave-owner or land-holder, shall receive a bounty or pension at the end of the war, upon being honorably discharged, of one negro slave and fifty acres of land.

I will state it thus: We have 3,500,000 slaves. We have probably enrolled 1,000,000 of men. Half these men are slave-owners, leaving 500,000 who do not own them. I would give one slave to each such soldier and fifty acres of land, and if he died in the service, to his representatives.

Thus you spread the institution. You make every family in the Government interested in it. You do away with the doctrine that this is the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight. And if the war is to continue you can make the slaves the very means of our defense – declare by law that all negroes captured from the enemy shall belong to the captors by general orders – declare to the enemy that all who will desert and enlist in our Army, take the oath of allegiance and fight in our cause, shall have a negro and fifty acres of land upon being honorably discharged, and shall further have all the negroes which they can capture from the enemy, to be their own property at the end of the war.

Lincoln has tempted thousands of men into his Army by offering reward. I now propose to outbid him, and as we have the most alluring means we shall get the most men. If we make it to the interest of the world to fight on our side, men from all quarters of the globe will take up arms in our defense. We can reduce Grant’s and Sherman’s armies one-half in numbers by desertions if we offer them the bait. We can enlist men from all quarters of the United States if we make it to their interest to come. In a word, we can buy out the armed forces of Lincoln, secure their service on our side.

We can command thousands of men from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and France by offering them a home in the sunny South and a servant. We will thus avoid the trouble of arming slaves. We will remove the prejudices against the institution and bring all the world up to its support from interested motives. The slave-owners can well afford to give up to the soldiers who have and will fight to maintain the institution 1,000,000 of slaves to secure forever the other 2,600,000. The mode of getting the land and negroes to pay these bounties with would be by taxation in kind, by general laws to purchase, by donations to the Government, by capture, by enslaving the free negroes in the South (emphasis added), by taxation and contribution by State Legislatures if needed.

With this system of laws wisely and properly regulated our people can be satisfied. Many of our farmers and mechanics can be released and sent home to attend to the industrial pursuits, and an army of 600,000 men can be put at General Lees disposal to march where he pleases, and feed them on the front instead of looking to his rear for supplies. Hoping, sir, that the wish of your heart, the independence of the South, may be speedily consummated,

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

J. W. ELLIS.

Interestingly, this proposal was not unique. The use of slaves as an enlistment bounty on American soil has been tried before, and goes back at least as far as the American Revolution.

Most of us know from history class that the shooting war between the United States and the Confederate States started at Ft. Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. That fort was named for Thomas Sumter (1734–1832), AKA the “Carolina Gamecock.” Sumter was a Revolutionary War hero and a member of the US Congress. As noted in wikipedia:

Portrait of American Revolutionary War militia...

Thomas Sumter by Rembrandt Peale, via Wikipedia

“In February 1776, Sumter was elected Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Regiment of the South Carolina Line of which he was later appointed Colonel. He subsequently was appointed Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia, a post he held until the end of the war. He participated in several battles in the early months of the war, including the campaign to prevent an invasion of Georgia. Perhaps his greatest military achievement was his partisan campaigning that contributed to the decision by Lord Cornwallis to leave the Carolinas for Virginia, where Cornwallis met his fate at Yorktown in October 1781.

“He acquired the nickname “The Carolina Gamecock” for his fierce fighting tactics, regardless of his size. A British General commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock,” and Cornwallis paid him the finest tribute when he described the Gamecock as his greatest plague.

“After the Revolution, Sumter served South Carolina as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives… (and) was elected a U. S. Senator…

“Gamecock” is one of the several traditional nicknames for a native of South Carolina. The University of South Carolina’s official nickname is the “Fighting Gamecocks,” though since 1903 the teams have been simply known as the “Gamecocks.”

“Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was named for Sumter after the War of 1812.”

Sumter used an enlistment bonus policy to attract men in South Carolina to fight for the Patriot cause. As Michael Lee Lanning notes in his book African Americans in the Revolutionary War,

Although neither South Carolina nor Georgia permitted black enlistment, both states did allow slaves to be used as bounties to induce white volunteers. In April 1781, Gen Thomas Sumter of South Carolina offered slaves to any white man volunteering for ten months of service. New recruits were to receive one grown, healthy slave, while those with prior service could receive up to four blacks for reenlisting.

In February 1782 the South Carolina legislature formalized “Sumter’s Law.” In addition to promising a healthy slave between the ages of ten and forty to any white who enlisted, the legislature ruled that recruiters were to receive a bonus of one slave for every twenty-five whites enlisted during a two-month period.Since neither Sumter nor the South Carolina legislature had any slaves of their own to barter for enlistments, they honored the bounty with slaves captured or confiscated from Loyalists (to the British).

Georgia broadened the scale of the use of slaves as enlistment bonuses. The state rewarded white soldiers with slaves for their part in successful battles, paid public officials with slaves, and used slaves as tender in exchange for military provisions and supplies. Again, the source of this “black currency” was the plantations of the Loyalists.

And it appears that Virginia also used slaves as an enlistment bonus – see here.

How ironic that the “black currency” used to wage the Revolutionary War would be the spark that led to the Civil War.

Did Ellis know about “Sumter’s Law?” Again, I don’t know. Ellis does not mention this in his letter to Jefferson Davis. It just may be that using slaves as an enlistment bonus seems like an obvious idea to some slaveholders.

{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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