Musings on the 4th of July and the end of slavery

Fighting for Freedom and Union: The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusestts (Colored) Regiment, by Currier & Ives, New York, 1863.
Image Source: Gilder Lehrman Collection

The 4th of July is one of the important dates in US history. We Americans celebrate the clarion call to liberty and equality as stated by the American Patriots in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But I am reminded that, throughout our history, this ideal of liberty and equality was not universally held. During the American Civil War, that portion of the Declaration was explicitly rejected by the Confederate States of America, the breakaway nation formed by secessionist slaveholding states. Consider the words of Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, in his famous “Corner Stone Speech”:

The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongs us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.

(Former President Thomas) Jefferson… had anticipated this as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new (Confederate) government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Many people say this clash between the competing visions of a free society and a slave society led to an irresistible conflict within the body politic of the United States, a conflict that Confederates hoped to resolve by simply breaking away from the Union. But they did not reckon with the desire of Union men to preserve the United States in the face of the secessionist threat.

In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln said during his second Inaugural Address:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict (i.e., slavery) might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It is certainly true that much wealth was gotten by “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” from the bondsmen. But I don’t know if the Civil War was a providential judgment, a cosmic/karmic phenomenon in which “the offenses of the North and South” resulted in “every drop of blood (that was) drawn with the lash (being) paid by another drawn with the sword.”

I have noticed that some people find discomfort or even fault with the way that slavery finally ended in the United States. They correctly note that the United States went to war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. The downfall of slavery was an unanticipated outcome that came only because a long and bloody war forced the Union to offer freedom to the enslaved, so they would join the fight to destroy the Confederacy. For some folks, the demise of slavery is tainted by the lack of original intent on the Union’s part to end bondage at the outset of the war.

And maybe it was serendipity. Perhaps it was mere luck that a Confederate nation-state founded on principles “opposite” to those of the Declaration of Independence would fall, with the “fundamental and astounding” results that the conflict between slavery and liberty would be resolved in favor of liberty, and that the wealth piled by the bondmen’s toil would be lost to the slaveholders.

What we can say is that the ante-bellum conflict between the ideal of liberty and equality for all men and the race-based privilege of holding property in man came to a sudden end with the defeat of the Confederacy. We can say that almost 4 million people gained their freedom out of the carnage of war, just as the American patriots gained their independence from the carnage of war many decades earlier. Perhaps the United States did stumble, unintentionally, into ending human bondage. I like to tell people that, it’s something that could only happen in America… the United States of America. If the USA can continue to hold to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, maybe we won’t need this kind of luck ever again.

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

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. Continue reading

‘Our Slaves Were Led Into Temptation’: Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ Lost Cause View of Black Emancipation and Enlistment

Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, after the Civil War: Slaves were “decoyed with the magic word of ‘freedom.’”
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Jefferson Davis was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. In 1881, two decades after the Civil War began, his two volume book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was published. Ostensibly the book is a history of the Confederate States. But at its core, the book is a legal, political, and moral critique – perhaps condemnation is not too strong a word – of the various policies and actions taken by the Union in challenging secession, prosecuting the Civil War, and ending slavery.

Davis’ book doesn’t say much about the Civil War experiences of African Americans who resided in the Confederacy, even though they were almost 40% of the Confederate States’ population. Davis does have a lot to say about the Union’s emancipation and black enlistment policies, however. Among other things, Davis says that those acts were politically motivated by abolitionists; counter to international mores and constitutional law; and a clear attempt to destroy southern society by undermining its foundational institution, African slavery.

Within that context, Davis makes a number of comments about those held in bondage. His statements echo a key position of so-called Lost Cause advocates of the Confederacy: that enslaved African Americans’ “servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot… Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due.” In other words, black people loved being slaves.

But if these enslaved persons were so loyal and so happy with their lot, why did so many of them flee their masters, and why did so many become soldiers and sailors for the Union military? Davis blames it on the Union, which was a “tempter” “like the serpent in Eden” that “decoyed (slaves) with the magic word of ‘freedom.'”

Davis spells it out in Chapter XXVI of his book:

In his message to Congress … on December 8, 1863, President  (Abraham Lincoln) thus boasts of his proclamation:

“(In January 1863) the final proclamation came, including the announcement that colored men of suitable condition would be received into the war service. The policy of emancipation and of employing black soldiers gave to the future a new aspect, about which hope and fear and doubt contended in uncertain conflict.

“According to our political system, as a matter of civil administration, the General Government had no lawful power to effect emancipation in any State, and for a long time it had been hoped that the rebellion could be suppressed without resorting to it as a military measure. . . .

“Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand are now in the United States military service, about one half of which number actually bear arms in the ranks, thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men. So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.”

Let the reader pause for a moment and look calmly at the facts presented in this statement. The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.

There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence.

Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. Continue reading

CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”

Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details

In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:

The public journals of the North have been received containing a proclamation dated on the first day of the present month signed by the President of the United States in which he orders and declares all slaves within ten States of the Conferderacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy.

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgement on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.”

Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses. So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.

Davis undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many Confederates when he spoke of “our detestation” to “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” To him, the Proclamation was clearly an incitement to violence. And Union officers woud pay the price for that: Davis warns that Union men who command blacks will be punished like “criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.” One penalty for such crimes was execution. Continue reading