November 7, 1864: Davis Proposes Enlisting Slaves in the Confederate Army

Jefferson Davis

On November 7, 1864 Jefferson Davis made his annual speech to the Second Confederate Congress.  Most of the speech was a valiant, albeit largely delusional, attempt to place a happy face on the desperate military situation confronting the Confederate States.  However, there is one section which finally brought out into the open the question of enlisting slaves in the Confederate Army.  Long rumored to be under consideration, bringing it before Congress was a testament to how bad the military prospects were for the Confederacy, the protestations of Davis to the contrary notwithstanding.  However, even at five minutes to midnight for the Confederacy, Davis still raised the proposal as a possible move in the future, not an immediate policy.  To many members of the Congress it must have seemed ironic that a War begun in defense of slavery, had now reached such a dire pass that they were being asked to liberate slaves to preserve their new nation.  Here is the portion of the speech of Davis dealing with the issue:

 

In this aspect the relation of person predominates so far as to render it doubtful whether the private right of property can consistently and beneficially be continued, and it would seem proper to acquire for the public service the entire property in the labor of the slave, and to pay therefor due compensation, rather than to impress his labor for short terms ; and this the more especially as the effect of the present law would vest this entire property in all cases where the slave might be recaptured after compensation for his loss had been paid to the private owner. Whenever the entire property in the service of a slave is thus acquired by the Government, the question is presented by what tenure he should be held. Should he be retained in servitude, or should his emancipation be held out to him as a reward for faithful service, or should it be granted at once on the promise of such service; and if emancipated what action should be taken to secure for the freed man the permission of the State from which he was drawn to reside within its limits after the close of his public service? The permission would doubtless be more readily accorded as a reward for past faithful service, and a double motive for zealous discharge of duty would thus be offered to those employed by the Government—their freedom and the gratification of the local attachment which is so marked a characteristic of the negro and forms so powerful an incentive to his action. The policy of engaging to liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered seems to me preferable to that of granting immediate manumission, or that of retaining him in servitude. If this policy should commend itself to the judgment of Congress, it is suggested that, in addition to the duties heretofore performed by the slave, he might be advantageously employed as a pioneer and engineer laborer, and, in that event, that the number should be augmented to forty thousand.

Beyond this limit and these employments it does not seem to me desirable under existing circumstances to go.

 A broad, moral distinction exists between the use of slaves as soldiers in defense of their homes and the incitement of the same persons to insurrection against their masters. The one is justifiable, if necessary, the other is iniquitous and unworthy of civilized people; and such is the judgment of all writers on public law, as well as that expressed and insisted on by our enemies in all wars prior to that now waged against us. By none have the practices of which they are now guilty been denounced with greater severity than by themselves in the two wars with Great Britain, in the last and in the present century, and in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, when an enumeration was made of the wrongs which justified the revolt from Great Britain. The climax of atrocity was deemed to be reached only when the English monarch was denounced as having ‘excited domestic insurrection among us.’

The subject is to be viewed by us, therefore, solely in the light of policy and our social economy. When so regarded, I must dissent from those who advise a general levy and arming of the slaves for the duty of soldiers. Until our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require and can afford to keep in the field, to employ as a soldier the negro, who has merely been trained to labor, and, as a laborer, the white man accustomed from his youth to the use of arms, would scarcely be deemed wise or advantageous by any; and this is the question now before us. But should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation, or of the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision. Whether our view embraces what would, in so extreme a case, be the sum of misery entailed by the dominion of the enemy, or be restricted solely to the effect upon the welfare and happiness of the negro population themselves, the result would be the same. The appalling demoralization, suffering, disease, and death, which have been caused by partially substituting the invaders’ system of police for the kind relation previously subsisting between the master and slave, have been a sufficient demonstration that external interference with our institution of domestic slavery is productive of evil only. If the subject involved no other consideration than the mere right of property, the sacrifices heretofore made by our people have been such as to permit no doubt of their readiness to surrender every possession in order to secure independence. But the social and political question which is exclusively under the control of the several States has a far wider and more enduring importance than that of pecuniary interest. In its manifold phases it embraces the stability of our republican institutions, resting on the actual political equality of all its citizens, and includes the fulfillment of the task which has been so happily begun—that of Christianizing and improving the condition of the Africans who have by the will of Providence been placed in our charge. Comparing the results of our own experience with those of the experiments of others who have borne similar relations to the African race, the people of the several States of the Confederacy have abundant reason to be satisfied with the past, and to use the greatest circumspection in determining their course. These considerations, however, are rather applicable to the improbable contingency of our need of resorting to this element of assistance than to our present condition. If the recommendation above, made for the training of forty thousand negroes for the service indicated, shall meet your approval, it is certain that even this limited number, by their preparatory training in intermediate duties, would form a more valuable reserve force in case of urgency than threefold their number suddenly called from field-labor, while a fresh levy could to a certain extent supply their places in the special service for which they are now employed.

Published in: on November 7, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on November 7, 1864: Davis Proposes Enlisting Slaves in the Confederate Army  
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