Colored Troops enter Charleston, SC; “I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time… an ye has done come at last”

US Colored Troops enter Charleston
“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865
Photo Source: Drawing from Harper’s Weekly, March 1865; image is at the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-105560 (w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-117999 (w film copy neg.)

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry - a book about the history of this majority black regiment during the Civil War – tells of an event that was miraculous for the times. It is hard for us, today, to realize how sublime and surreal it was that on February 21, 1865, African American soldiers entered the city of Charleston, South Carolina, liberating the enslaved people there from bondage. It was an event that was unthinkable just several years earlier. But 1865 was the Year of the Unthinkable – and for the enslaved people of Charleston, the Year of Jubilee. And freedom came with the face of black men in blue suits.

For northerners, South Carolina was considered the Cradle of the Confederacy. It was, after all, the first state to secede from the Union; ten other states would follow her lead and combine to form the Confederate States of America. The shooting war between the Union and Confederacy started on April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter – a United States military fort that protected the entrance to Charleston harbor – was attacked by Confederate forces. The fort surrendered to the Confederates after two days of artillery shelling. Four years of fighting followed; anywhere from 620,000 to 750,000 men died, and that doesn’t include those who were injured or  missing in action. The American Civil War was an American bloodbath.

But African Americans saw South Carolina in a different negative light. At the start of the war, South Carolina was the blackest state in the Union: 57% of its residents were slaves, and another 1.4% were free blacks. Working conditions throughout the state could be harsh, especially in the rice fields along the Atlantic coast. Although the coastal town of Charleston was something of an outlier in this overwhelmingly rural state: it was an urban enclave with a white majority (in 1860, Charleston had a population of 23,000 whites, 14,000 slaves, and 3,200 free blacks). As the state’s major trading center, it was bustling with economic activity, including slave trading businesses that engaged in the sale of property in human beings. This place of white wealth was the site of many black broken hearts.

And if it had been South Carolina’s choice, it would remain that way. In its 1860 secession declaration, the state asserted that “we affirm that these ends for which (the United States) government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” A new, Confederate nation would remove these threats to their system of bondage, but the war with the Union would have to be won first. A loss to the Union might make the state’s worst nightmares come true.

Over the course of the war, the Union made attempts to capture Charleston and the military forts around it. Most famously, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment – a majority black regiment – was repulsed in its attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. The unit suffered heavy casualties. Although defeated, their spirited attack and sacrifice was recognized and celebrated throughout the northern states. Many years later, in 1989, the  54th Massachusetts became the focus of a movie named Glory.

But the Union would finally have its day. In January 1865, Union forces led by General William Sherman entered South Carolina from Georgia, and the Confederates could not give them much opposition. In February 1865, Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard ordered that Charleston be evacuated, although many residents remained thereafter. On February 15, the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig. This was followed by a procession of nearby Union troops into the city, which was headed by regiments of black troops.

The 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 21st United States Colored Infantry regiments led the way. The 21st USCI, formerly known as the 3rd and 4th Regiments of the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), included former slaves from the South Caroline Low Country, not too far away. The significance and symbolism of their actions – that they were black men who were freeing black people from slavery – was neither lost on them, nor on the enslaved people they liberated. Jubilee was indeed at hand.

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which charts the history of the regiment, recounted the arrival of black troops into Charleston. It was an event, they said, that would live in memory forever:

…after a short delay to await the return of foraging parties, the line of march was resumed for (the town of) Mount Pleasant, opposite Charleston… the Fifty-fifth was the first body of troops to enter the town after its evacuation. Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget, — the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery, As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid. The few white inhabitants left in the town were either alarmed or indignant, and generally remained in their houses; but the colored people turned out en masse. Assiduously had they been taught to regard the ” Yanks ” as their enemies ; carefully had every channel of information been closed against them : but all to no purpose.

“Bress de Lord,” said an old, gray-haired woman, with streaming eyes, and hands clasped and raised toward heaven, “bress de Lord, I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time, and I knowed you’d come, an ye has done come at last;” and she expressed the feelings of all…

Daylight was fading when the line was formed to march through the city to a camping ground on Charleston Neck. Before the march commenced, three rousing cheers were given by the men of the Fifty-fifth, and given with a will. They were then told that the only restriction placed on them in passing through the city, would be to keep in the ranks, and that they might shout and sing as they chose.

Few people were on the wharf when the troops landed, or in the street when the line was formed; but the streets, on the route through the city, were crowded with the colored population. Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers, Many of them talked earnestly and understandingly of the past and present. The white population remained within their houses, but curiosity led even them to peep through the blinds at the ‘black Yankees.”

On through the streets of the rebel city passed the column, on through the chief seat of that slave power, tottering to its fall. Its walls rung to the chorus of manly voices singing “John Brown,” ” Babylon is falling,” and the “Battle-Cry of Freedom”; while, at intervals, the national airs, long unheard there, were played by the regimental band. The glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory for ever.

Scenes from the commemoration of the Battle of Forks Road, Wilmington, NC

Soldiers at Battle of Forks Road
US Colored Troops reenactors/living Historians at the 10th Annual Civil War Living History Weekend in Wilmington, NC.
Image Source: Facebook page for the US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA), added February 9, 2015

This past February 7th and 8th, the Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC, presented the 10th Annual Civil War Living History Weekend, to commemorate the Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Battle of Forks Road. The theme of the event was “Forks Road…The Beginning of the End,” which was appropriate, in that the fight occurred just several months before the the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. I had hoped to attend, but it was not meant to be. However, I can share some images from the event which are on social media further below.

The Battle of Forks Road website has an excellent account of the battle, and reporting of its importance. As noted at the site,

Although officially considered a skirmish, the Battle of Forks Road, February 20-21, 1865, fought on the site now occupied by Cameron Art Museum, is arguably one of the most important social and political events in the history of the Wilmington area.

In contrast to many Civil War battles, at Forks Road there were white and African American soldiers serving in both the Union and Confederate forces. Furthermore, many soldiers in both forces were local men—North Carolinians for generations. Of course, most of the African American soldiers had been slaves, but they were, nonetheless, on their home ground as were the white Confederates. There were African American soldiers, too, who had been sent, as slaves, to serve in their owner’s place, throughout the Confederate army.

One group whose contribution at Forks Road is not widely known is the force of 1600 African American Union troops, known as the U.S. Colored Troops or U.S.C.T. These men, along with other Union troops, were victorious at Forks Road, defeating the Confederate forces, taking control of Wilmington, and hastening the end of the war. The U.S.C.T. emerged from the war as heroes, viewed by former slaves and freemen alike as liberators of their people. Though there were certainly casualties among the U.S.C.T., most survived the war, and many of those remained to make their home in the area.

Very soon after the end of the war Wilmington’s population shifted from a majority white population to a majority African American population; an effect that some have attributed to the influence to the soldiers who remained to make Wilmington their home. The cultural and political effects of that population shift were profound and are still reflected in the social and political life of the region.

More history of the battle is here. An article that features interviews with two US Colored Troops reenactors/living historians who have attended the event is here.

The commemoration weekend included lectures, living historian presentations, a battle reenactment, cannon and artillery demonstrations, and an encampment with tents, sutlers, period games and music, artisan demonstrations, and children’s activities.

These three photographs, taken by Chuck Monroe, are from the Facebook page for the US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA):

Battle of Forks Road 2 copy

Battle of Forks Road 4

Battle of Forks Road usctlha 2

These photographs are from an Image Gallery on the Battle of Fork Roads site, courtesy Alan Cradick Photography. Click on the link to see the full set of photos.

These are scenes from prior year events: Continue reading

Self-emancipation during the Civil War: Remembering the Corinth Contraband Camp, MS

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Statue and markers near the entrance to the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is winding down. In a scant few months, we will observe the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. This is a good moment to reflect on how the War was commemorated these past few years.

One disappointment of the Sesquicentennial, in my opinion, has been the relative lack of attention given to contrabands/runaways/self-emancipated slaves.

During the War, over a hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to return these freedom seekers to their owners; the goal was to maintain the owners’ loyalty to, and support for, the Union cause. That policy unraveled as the Union came to see the slaves as valuable and necessary allies in the war against the Confederate regime.

Over time the Union evolved new policies, under which slaves who escaped their masters would be given asylum, usually in war refugee/labor camps that were in or near army encampments or forts. These places were variously called contraband camps or freedom colonies or freedom villages. The escaped slaves were called ‘contraband’ by northerners, on the basis that they were property that was seized from Confederates. I do not know if the self-emancipators defined themselves using this northerners’ lexicon.

There has been a very good focus during the Sesquicentennial, I think, on the role of African descent soldiers during the War, due in part to the efforts of African American reenactors and living historians. But the black southern soldier was a subset of a larger group of people who escaped bondage. And the story of that larger group hasn’t seen as much attention, as I look back at the spate of events and activities since the Sesquicentennial period began in 2011.

Many of the stories of these former slaves are about families, women and children especially, taking huge risks, and enduring much suffering in the process, to gain their freedom. Even if these families were successful in reaching a contraband camp, they sometimes lived in harsh conditions. Many of their menfolk joined the United States armed forces; by the War’s end, over 135,000 men from Confederate or Union slave states joined the US army, and thousands more joined the navy. With the men gone, black women were forced to care for themselves, their children and the elderly, in places that might seem like war refugee camps today. Groups like the American Missionary Association aided the military in providing educational and other services to the freedmen and women.

We know much about the black men who joined the armed forces because of the records that were kept about their service. But literacy, gender, age (again, many of these former slaves were children) and other factors have resulted in a more spare record of the former slaves at these camps.

This is not to say that the memory of these folks has been completely ignored in the commemorative landscape, that is, the public and non-public spaces which memorialize the past. An exemplary public site for the recognition of the runaways is the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the state border with Tennessee.

End of Slavery Civil War exhibit in Corinth, Mississippi

Statues inside the Civil War Interpretive Center at Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; featuring an African American Union soldier and a freedwoman taking a class.
Image Source: Photo/Copyright by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright. Photo is not in the public domain. 

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Statue of freedwoman and child reading a book at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Camp is a National Park Service (NPS) site, and part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. This is from the NPS description of the site:

As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge to accommodate these refugees.

The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program. By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.

Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army. Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.

In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freedmen resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.​

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Statue of United States Colored Troops solider at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops, was formed at the Corinth Camp.

Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

One of the wonderful things about the statues in the park is that women are so well represented. The inclusiveness is important, and for visitors, informative and even enlightening.

The Corinth site is in northeast Mississippi, about 60 miles from Jackson, TN, about 100 miles from either Memphis, TN, or Decatur, AL, and about 120 miles from Huntsville, AL. This will make for a great visit for those who want to learn about this important part of Civil War and American history.

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, is indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

Toy Soldiers

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Figurines of United States Colored Troops from the American Civil War.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

These are pictures of some very cool figurine displays that were posted to the Facebook page of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Unfortunately, the site of these displays is not clearly identified. Too bad; I’d love to see them in person. If anybody knows where these are, please drop me a line.

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Figurines of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War. The figure to the far right is wearing the uniform of the First Rhode Island Regiment, which fought with the Patriots.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

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I suspect this scene is based on the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by having himself mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania abolitionists.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

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: Continue reading

“You yield your children, why not your servants?”: the Confederacy seeks slave laborers along the Mississippi

Slave labor needed for the Confederacy
Poster (called a ‘broadside’) asking slave-owners west of the Mississippi River to hire their slaves out to the Confederacy: “The negro men our enemy would arm against us, can be well employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.”
Source: National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Title #17439_2008_001_PR.  Click here for larger image.

Slave labor was a key part of the Confederate war effort against the Union military during the American Civil War. Almost immediately, slaves were employed to provide labor to the Confederate military. If slaves could be used to do all the dirty work required to keep up the new Confederate nation and support the armed services – work such as digging ditches or building fortifications – then white men could be dedicated to combat and related duties.

For that to work, though, slave holders needed to allow the Confederate military to use their slaves. And many slaveholders didn’t want to do that. It was quite common for slaves to be hired out by their masters to work outside their homes. But providing labor to the military was another story. Owners feared that slaves would get sick, injured, or even die while doing strenuous work under hazardous conditions. Owners were also afraid that slaves might exploit their situation to find ways to escape.

So it was that in September 1863, Confederate major J. F. Minter, a Chief Quartermaster in the Trans-Mississippi Department, issued the above poster (called a ‘broadside’) which pleaded with slaveholders to hire their slaves out to the army. (The Trans-Mississippi Department managed military operations to the west of the Mississippi River, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.) The slaves would be employed as “teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.” Note that, Minter does not ask for slaves who will become or act as soldiers. Until the very end of the war, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army.

Major Minter offered another reason for slaves to be hired out to the Confederate military. The Union was then engaged in a plan to confiscate and liberate slaves, so they could be laborers or even soldiers for the Union cause. Minter suggested that by hiring slaves out to the Confederacy, their loss to the enemy could be avoided.

Minter’s fears turned out to be justified. Over 95,000 black men from the Confederate States, a large portion of whom were once enslaved, joined the Union military. Louisiana alone provided 24,000 men to the Union army, the most of any state, Confederate or Union.

What did the slaves make of Minter’s request for their labor? Major Minter’s broadside doesn’t address that question. His comment that the people must “sacrifice freely… (to) remain freemen” did not include bondsmen as part of “the people.” Slaves were simply a resource to be used by one side or the other. And Minter’s job was to make that labor safe and useful for the Confederate cause. But as the war continued, the bondsmen would show that they were not just tools of the Union or the Confederacy, but rather, agents of their own liberation. Minter didn’t say it and perhaps didn’t see it; but in time, this truth would be inescapable.


From the American Social History Project: “In May 1863, Louisiana black regiments fought with great gallantry and almost reckless disregard for their own lives in the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. The bravery of these troops, which previously had been doubted by many northern commanders, was soon extolled in the pages of the illustrated press.”
Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, by artist Francis H. Schell; image from Dickinson College’s ‘House Divided’ site.

{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.}