restricted access 5. Pragmatism and Desperation in Davis’s Push for Conditional Emancipation
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5 Pragmatism and Desperation in ­ Davis’s Push for Conditional Emancipation “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.” — Jefferson ­ Davis, Jefferson ­ Davis, Constitutionalist, Letters, Papers, and Speeches In the two years following ­ Davis’s response to the Emancipation Proclamation , the Confederate States of America suffered major setbacks in its campaign for independence. Despite ­ Davis’s controversial conscription policies, the Confederacy put 850,000 soldiers into the field compared to the Union’s 2,100,000. By 1864, the Union was reaping the benefits of war industrialization in­ clud­ ing increased iron production, a burgeoning firearms industry, and astounding increases in overall manufacturing.1 The South, by contrast, was suffering from devastating resource shortages and reaping the consequences of a war fought mostly on its own territory. Union invasions had destroyed almost all South­ ern industry, killed one-­ quarter of south­ ern white men and two-­ fifths of South­ ern livestock, demolished half the machinery for South­ ern agriculture, and rendered thousands of miles of railroad useless.2 With military resources dwindling and Atlanta in enemy hands, ­ Davis issued a message to the Confederate Congress on No­ vem­ ber 7, 1864.Tenuously balanced between assertions of victory and explanations for defeat , the message was steeped in the languages of desperation and hope. Throughout forty-­ one paragraphs, ­ Davis addressed the status of the Confederate fight for independence in a speech that would be published and circulated through­ out the North and the South. He dedicated the ­ majority of his message to the status of the military campaigns in the east and west, foreign relations with England and France,finances,reorganization of the Department of War, negotiations for peace, and the “Employment of Slaves.”3 Although ­ Davis’s message covered a wide variety of topics, the section on the“Employment of Slaves”demonstrates just how desperate the Confederate war effort was by this point in ­ Davis’s era of rhe­ tori­ cal leadership . In this section, ­ Davis proposed “a radical modification in the theory of the law”through a policy of conditional emancipation that would grant 76 / Chapter 5 free­ dom to 40,000 slaves if they helped to secure a Confederate victory through faithful service to the Confederate military effort. Given the significance of slavery and states’ rights for the foundation of the Confederacy , this No­ vem­ ber 1864 address is an important window into the final moments of ­ Davis’s rhe­ tori­ cal leadership. From his initial speeches as president to this moment of eminent collapse , ­ Davis struggled to balance the pragmatic demands of war with his vision of Confederate nationalism based on principles contrary to a centralized war effort. At this moment in No­ vem­ ber 1864, ­ Davis’s proposal for conditional emancipation signaled the end of this struggle. He was no longer willing to make overtures to any principle that would place slavery, states’ rights, or in­ di­ vidual property over the survival of the Confederacy. The fundamental problem for ­ Davis, however, was that his decision to focus on the survival of the Confederacy over anything else begged a series of difficult questions: what was the Confederacy apart from the institution of slavery? What was the ethos of the Confederacy without respect for states’ rights? What was left that was worth fighting for, much less dying for? While it may have been too late for ­ Davis to construct a new identity for the Confederacy at this moment of complete collapse,­ Davis’s No­ vem­ ber 1864 address once again foregrounded independence for independence’s sake at the expense of the rhe­ tori­ cal work to constitute a new meaning for the war effort. Without a new framework for interpreting the tremendous sacrifices of an extended war effort, ­ Davis left his audience with little faith in the idea of the Confederacy. Desperation in the Final Days of the Confederacy­ Davis’s No­ vem­ ber 1864 address was not the first time that conditional emancipation had been proposed in the Confederacy. Many of these earlier proposals, detailed by Robert F. Durden and Bruce Levine, came from the Confederate Army.4 One of the most powerful proposals came from Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee.5 On Janu­ ary 2, 1864, Cleburne wrote a memorandum that included one major general, three brigadier generals, four colonels, two lieutenant colonels, one captain, and one major wherein the officers pushed for...