Some of the “black warriors” for the Union, as Lincoln called them: At least 18,000 African Americans from Mississippi, such as those in this image, served in the Union army. By 1865, Confederates pondered the use of slaves as soldiers in their army.
Image: “The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry (USA) Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
Image Source: From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here
[This is part of a series that looks at the Confederacy’s decision, in March 1865, to allow slaves to join the Confederate army.]
By February 1865, the Confederate States of America was on the brink of military collapse. Indeed, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee would surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, an event which triggered the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
But before defeat came desperation. All options were being put on the table. 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.
Robert E. Lee had weighed-in on the issue in January, 1865. He recommended that slaves be “employ(ed) without delay” in the Confederate army, and be given freedom immediately upon enlistment. He recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the Confederacy’s slaves. These steps, he reasoned, would ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers.
Lee was a popular figure in the Confederacy, but that did not make his views on slave enlistment and emancipation universally popular. A dissenting view came from Charles Clark, the governor of Mississippi.
Clark knew full well how former slaves soldiers helped the Union war effort. At least 18,000 African American from his state enlisted in the Union army by the end of the war. Black soldiers were among the Union forces that occupied the city of Jackson, the state capital. The state government was forced to flee the city to other places inside and outside the state. In his book Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front, Timothy B. Smith writes
The blue-clad cavalry arrived at Jackson, Mississippi, that July 1864, causing the inhabitants to fully realize what had happened to their state, their Confederacy, and, most important, their lives. These were not typical Union cavalrymen, which the citizens of Jackson and had seen before. These were African American Yankees, the Third Regiment Cavalry U.S. colored troops, raised and organized out of Mississippi slaves in 1863. Firmly in control of the city and all functions that took place in it, the cavalrymen openly displayed a new manner in Mississippi; old cultures and society were obviously changing.
A white officer in a black regiment noted the change: “the slaves are the masters and the masters, or rather, the mistresses, for there are a few masters at home, are the slaves, through fear.” One former slave put it more succinctly when he spoke of the “bottom rail on top.” That day had come in Mississippi.
Perhaps Governor Clark was not enamored of the prospect of a new day for Mississippi, in which slaves were anything but the bottom rail. In a message dated February 20, 1865, to the Mississippi legislature, which was operating in Columbus, MS, the governor gave his views:
I cordially united with the Governors of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Augusta in October last, in recommending the policy of employing a large force of negroes in the army as teamsters and laborers, or in any capacity in which they might be found effective. Whatever may be the public opinion on this subject, I hesitate not to declare mine, that, with competent officers and firm discipline, they can be made effective soldiers; and that the experiment should now be made. The whole argument is summed up in a remark attributed to one of our most distinguished leaders: “If we do not use them the enemy will.”
The greatest objection comes from our people near the lines of the enemy, who allege that the attempt to conscribe them will drive them to the enemy. This may be prevented by the master removing his able-bodied men from such vicinity, and sending them to the army. To send cavalry to capture them will produce the effect feared, as has been demonstrated heretofore; and if as is anticipated, Congress passes a bill authorizing a conscription of negros, either as laborers or as soldiers, owners near the line should immediately remove them. It would be well that all able bodied male slaves between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years should be so removed; as, if only a part are taken, the remainder, through fear would endeavor to escape. We forced the removal or destruction of cotton to prevent it falling into the hands of the enemy; why, then, not remove that property of which they have made such fearful use?
I do not, however, favor the granting of freedom to slaves, or of offering it as a boon. It is no boon to them. Few of them aspire to this, or covet it. Steady, firm, but kind discipline, such as good masters enforce, is all that is required. Freedom would be a curse to them and to the country. These views I expressed to our delegation in Congress in November last, and I state them here, as I deem it the duty of all who have been placed in prominent position to candidly avow their opinions at this time upon the vital questions which agitate the public mind.
Governor Clark was perfectly willing to have slaves fight for Mississippi and the Confederacy. But freedom for bondsmen and bondswomen… in a state where 55% of the population was enslaved?… no way, said the governor. In his mind, slaves didn’t want to be free. He did not share Robert E. Lee’s concern that the grant of freedom was needed to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. The “steady, firm, but kind discipline” such as “good masters enforce” was all that was needed. How Clark reconciled all of this with the sight of black Union soldiers who, in the words of Timothy B. Smith, “openly displayed a new manner” is not clear. It seems to me that, even in the end, old ideas died hard, or maybe, they didn’t die at all.
Clark’s voice was one of many on the subject of black enlistment and emancipation. In the next post, a quite different opinion will be discussed.