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