Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001
Desperate times require desperate measures. And in January of 1865, Robert E. Lee, the general in chief of the Confederate States of America, was desperate.
The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South Carolina; and the Confederacy’s position in Virginia was being made tenuous by pressure from the forces of Union general Ulysses Grant and a lack of manpower.
Given their circumstances, 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. Andrew Hunter, a Virginia politician, wrote to General Robert E. Lee to get his opinion on the controversy. Lee responded: slaves should be employed as soldiers “without delay.”
It’s not like Lee preferred to make this radical shift in policy. He maintained that the “relation of master and slave” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races.” But he argued that the use of slaves as soldiers would “increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.” And even more, it might counteract the horrifying prospect that slaves, having been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation, would continue to take arms for the Union, and destroy slavery on the Union’s terms and/or the slaves’ terms in the event of Confederate defeat.
Lee went even further in his policy proposal: he recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the slaves, not just soldiers and their families. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation offered to immediately free all the slaves; Confederates needed to come close to that offer, he reasoned, to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. Yes, freedom for the slaves might mean hardship for whites, but Union victory would be even worse. Better to give freedom to the slaves and defeat the Union, than to have the Union give the slaves freedom and defeat the Confederacy in the process. Lee believed that if employing slaves as soldiers “ends in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.” Lee did not detail what “means” would be devised to manage the “evil consequences” of freedom for the bondsmen.
This is an excerpt from General Lee’s January 11, 1865, letter to Andrew Hunter (from The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 4 – Volume 3, page 1012-13):
Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.
Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all… Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength. His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. Continue reading