Friday, May 24, 2024

Could the Confederacy Have Won the Civil War by Arming Their Slaves in 1862?

The primary reason why the Union defeated the Confederacy in the Civil War is that the Union had far more soldiers and sailors than did the Confederacy.  The Union enhanced this advantage beginning in the summer of 1862 with the first deployment of black soldiers.  By the end of the war, 180,000 black soldiers and 18,000 black sailors had fought for the Union; and most of them had been enslaved at the start of the war.

The Union's numerical advantage could have been lessened if the Confederacy had armed its slaves early in the war.  David Brion Davis--one of the leading historians of slavery and abolition--once suggested that if the Confederacy had armed large numbers of its slaves as early as the spring of 1862, that might have won the war for the South (Davis 2006, 11).  Actually, in the last year of the war, there was a public debate in the Confederacy over the possibility of arming the slaves.  And in March of 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a law authorizing the military enrollment of slaves to fight for the South.  But by then it was too late to make any difference in the war, because Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9.

The Confederacy was a grand experiment in government.  Conceived in the liberty of white men to enslave others and dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal, it became the largest and most powerful republic of white men based on slavery in the world at that time.  (This explains why some of the leading thinkers on the American Far Right today--like Curtis Yarvin--admire the Confederacy.)  The Civil War was a test of whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.  It did not.

Could the Confederacy have endured if it had armed its slaves early in the war?  Or would this have denied the theory of slavery on which the Confederacy was founded?  Could the slaves have been armed without being emancipated?  Would armed slaves have fought to preserve their own enslavement?  If they had, would this have proven that they were natural slaves who consented to their enslavement?  Or did most Confederate leaders in March of 1865 accept the emancipation of slaves as the necessary condition for arming them?  Did they therefore accept that a slaveholders' republic like the Confederate States of America could not long endure?

The critical turning point for the Confederacy in this debate came at the beginning of July of 1863.  On July 3, Jefferson Davis received the news of the defeat at the battle of Gettysburg, with 28,000 Confederate men killed or wounded, one third of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  On July 4, Davis learned of General Pemberton's surrender to Grant at Vicksburg and the loss of a whole army of 30,000 men.  A few days later, Davis received a letter from Robert E. Lee asking for reinforcements.  Lee observed: "Conscious that the enemy has been much shattered in the recent battle, I am aware that he can easily be reinforced, while no addition can be made to our numbers."

Now, for the first time, some Confederate officials began to discuss the enlistment of black men.  In August, a legislative committee in the Alabama state legislature debated a series of emergency measures that included the compulsory impressment of slaves for military service as "pioneers, sappers, and miners, cooks, nurses, teamsters, or as soldiers" (McCurry 2010, 323).  One newspaper editor at the Montgomery Weekly Mail worried that that negroes are "racial inferiors," but "the proposition to make them soldiers" would be a "practical equalization of the races."

In this early debate, there was no discussion of the possibility of emancipation.  But over the next year and a half, three possibilities emerged.  (1)  Arm the slaves and keep them enslaved.  (2)  Arm the slaves and emancipate only the black soldiers, and perhaps also their families.  (3)  Arm the slaves and emancipate all the slaves.

The third option was the most radical.  It was proposed on January 2, 1864, in a remarkable memorandum written by Major General Patrick Cleburne.  He was an officer of the Army of Tennessee, and he sent the memo to other officers.  "Every soldier in our army already knows and feels our numerical inferiority to the enemy," he insisted.  "If this state continues much longer, we must be subjugated."  Moreover, "slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness," because Confederate slaves were being recruited by the Union armies, and the slaves were an "omnipresent spy system" for the Union soldiers.  Thus, the Confederates had to wage war with the Union army in front and "an insurrection in the rear" (Cleburne 1880; McCurry 2010, 325-331).

Under these circumstances, the only way for the Confederacy to have any chance to avoid defeat, Cleburne argued, was to recruit the slaves into the Confederate army.  But to motivate the slaves to fight for the Confederacy, he insisted, they would have to be promised a general emancipation.  To preserve its independence, the Confederacy would have to give up slavery.  "For many years, ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced, the negro has been dreaming of freedom.  It has become the paradise of his hopes.  To attain it, he will attempt dangers and difficulties not exceeded by the bravest soldier in the field."  The Confederacy would have to satisfy that dream of freedom "by emancipating the whole race upon reasonable terms" (Cleburne 1880). 

Jefferson Davis ordered the suppression of Cleburne's document, because it was "injurious to the public service that such a subject should be mooted."  Cleburne was ordered to destroy all of his personal copies.  Sometime in the 1880s, a copy of his memo was discovered and published.

In November of 1864, after the fall of Atlanta in September, the Confederacy's situation had become so desperate that even President Davis proposed to the Confederate Congress that slaves be armed.  But unlike Cleburne, Davis said nothing about general emancipation.  

Davis's proposal sparked a passionate debate.  Many Southerners thought that arming slaves would betray the proslavery national identity of the Confederacy.  General Howell Cobb of Georgia complained:  "If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong" (McCurry 2010, 352).  

But by the winter of 1864, the Confederate armies had become so decimated by casualties and desertion--Davis said that two-thirds of the army had deserted (Weitz 2005)--some Southerners argued that arming slaves might be a necessary evil.  Some thought that the slaves would fight for the Confederacy--and for the preservation of slavery--without any promise of freedom for themselves.  Others thought the slaves would fight only if the armed slaves were promised freedom for themselves and their families.  Almost no one took Cleburne's position that arming slaves would require a general emancipation of all slaves.

On March 8, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a law (by a narrow vote) authorizing President Davis to arm slaves.  On March 13, Davis signed the law that permitted him "to accept from the owners of slaves the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient . . . to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct" (McCurry 2010, 350).  Notice that this preserved the power of the slaveholder over his slave, and nothing was said about emancipation.

On March 17, Abraham Lincoln responded to this development in an impromptu speech at the White House to the 140th Indiana Regiment:

". . . I have in my lifetime heard many arguments why the negroes ought to be slaves; but if they fight for those who would keep them in slavery it will be a better argument than any I have yet heard. (Laughter and applause.)  He who will fight for that ought to be a slave. (Applause.)  They have concluded at last to take one out of four of the slaves, and put them in the army; and that one of the four who will fight to keep the other in slavery ought to be a slave himself unless he is killed in a fight. (Applause.)  While I have often said that all men ought to be free, yet I would allow those colored persons to be slaves who want to be; and next to them those white persons who argue in favor of making other people slaves. (Applause.)  I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such white men to try it on for themselves. (Applause.) . . ." (1989, 2:690-91).

Lincoln seemed to suggest here that any slaves who would fight for their own enslavement ought to be enslaved, because they have shown themselves to be natural slaves.  But there is also a mocking tone to his comments (with laughter from the audience) that indicates he doesn't believe this--that surely slaves will never fight to enslave themselves, and the Confederates are foolish if they believe this.

Apparently, however, President Davis was unwilling to try the experiment of arming slaves to fight to keep themselves in slavery.  On March 23, he signed and released a general order, as a piece of enabling legislation, that "No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman" (McCurry 2010, 350-51).  This is a stunning concession by the President of a slaveholding republic:  to win the slave's "consent" to fight for the Confederacy, Davis must recognize his "rights of a freedman."

General Lee wanted to go further than that--more towards Cleburne's proposal.  He said that they could not "expect slaves to fight for prospective freedom when they can secure it at once by going to the enemy," so "the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation" (McCurry 2010, 342).

There is a long history from antiquity to modern times of arming slaves, but one historian surveying that history has concluded that "the arming of slaves both enabled and encouraged" slaves to claim their natural rights--"rights to freedom, rights in property, rights as citizens, and rights to recognition" (Brown 2006, 342).  In their effort to arm their slaves, the Confederates seemed to reach the same conclusion.

This confirms the argument I have often made on this blog about the evolutionary history of slavery:  that from the first appearance of slavery in archaic chiefdoms and states (such as in Mesopotamia), we can see that slavery violated the natural desire for freedom that had become part of evolved human nature in the foraging state of nature, and therefore slaves have always tended to run from slavery to freedom.  In doing that, they express the Lockean liberal principle of self-ownership.


Brown, Christopher Leslie. 2006. "The Arming of Slaves in Comparative Perspective."  In Christopher Leslie Brown and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age, 330-353.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Cleburne, Major General Patrick R. et al. to Commanding General, the Corps, Division, Brigade, and Regimental Commanders of the Army of Tennessee, January 2, 1864.  1880.  In United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, vol. 52, pt. 2, 586-592.  Washington, DC, 1880-1901.

Davis, David Brion.  2006.  "Introduction." In Brown and Morgan, 1-13.

Lincoln, Abraham.  1989.  Writings.  2 vols.  Ed. Don Fehrenbacher.  New York: Library of America.

McCurry, Stephanie.  2010.  Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.



Barto of the Oratory said...

Many military strategists are discussing how, in the very near future, during some hot war or cold war, governments will have to decide whether to arm their autonomous AI's, in order to defend against or in order to defeat some enemy (governmental or terroristic). So far, computers have always been our slaves. But in the near future? This evolution, from the minds of homo sapiens, of this new species of intelligence, validates everything Darwin wrote in his "Origin" book, and furthermore shows, I think, that the laws of biology/life (as described in "Origin") are unstoppable and are never blocked, mitigated, or moderated by human culture (philosophy, religion, law, etc.). Darwin in his "Descent" book does seem to say that, among "civilized races" of human beings, culture does stop or mostly stop the operation of natural selection. (Many computer scientists are now commenting on how natural selection is operating now in the development of AI.) The evolution of AI from humans, and many other facts, seem to argue against Darwin's claim in "Descent" that natural selection generally does not operate within the "civilized races." Of course, time will tell. Apparently, we won't have to wait too much longer to see the answer for ourselves.

CJColucci said...

Nobody ever wanted to be a slave, but generalizing from X's naturaL desire not to be a slave to the proposition that nobody ought to be a slave was a long time in coming. There were plenty of justifications for slavery, without any apparent explicit attacks. The shifts, twists, and turns about who could properly be a slave and why, and whether the enslaved somehow deserved to be slaves or were just unlucky suggests a simmering bad conscience about slavery, as such, but I don't think there were many criticisms off slavery, as such, until about the 18th century. Any thoughts about why that was?

Roger Sweeny said...

Paragraph 12 begins, "But by the winter of 1864, the Union armies had become so decimated by casualties and desertion--Davis said that two-thirds of the army had deserted (Weitz 2005)--some Southerners argued that arming slaves might be a necessary evil."

Did you mean the Confederate armies?

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes. Thanks again.