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155 • 7 • Free to Fight The Confederate Army and the Use of Slaves as Soldiers The presence of 200,000 African Americans in the United States army and navy, combined with the vast number of slaves who escaped their masters, underscored black people’s desire to help the Union crush the Confederacy. It also showed how the United States was adept at forging an alliance, albeit troubled at times, between black soldiers and their mostly white officers.1 However, as the war turned against the Confederacy in 1863, some white Southerners began thinking it wise to enlist their black population of military age. In 1864 and 1865, the Southern armies engaged in an intense debate about how Confederates could further employ slaves as a tool of the military. The Confederate government finally authorized the use of black troops, but only reluctantly. In March 1865, it passed a weak black enlistment bill, which proved far too late to help the Rebel armies, especially in the West. Nor did the bill fundamentally alter the master-slave relationship in the South, as it did not promise freedom to African Americans who served. Instead, it gave masters the power to decide whether or not their slaves could join the army. Slaves only were free to fight. The Confederacy’s black enlistment bill was a creature of the white South’s reluctance to alter the institution of slavery fundamentally. Even supporters of black enlistment—who did not see using black troops as incompatible with slavery—argued from a white-supremacist perspective that viewed Southern blacks as racial inferiors. The debate over enlistment in the South was not a moral one concerning a slave’s right to be free. Confederates were not arguing from the abolitionist perspective . Instead, they supported or denounced the idea of black Confederate soldiers using the complex, often contradictory, tenets of the proslavery argument. To some proslavery Southerners, enlisting blacks might have seemed radical, but in fact it mostly was a token effort by a slaveholding marching masters 156 nation that had run out of options. The Confederacy only debated freeing its slaves when it became obvious that the North would soon free them anyway. Yet, even when they voted to arm African Americans, Confederates still believed they could give slaves guns without having to liberate most of them. The historian Bruce Levine has argued in his work on the black enlistment debate that the Army of Northern Virginia “played a pivotal political role in reorienting popular opinion” in support of the bill. However, historians have differed over to what extent the Confederacy’s arming of slaves was a revolutionary measure. Some argue that the enlistment debate revealed that white Southerners were prepared to make a radical break concerning slavery. The historian Emory Thomas has written, “The fact was that the Confederacy was prepared to let slavery perish and to fight on! For what? The new nation and its war had achieved a dynamic of their own—a dynamic which overshadowed principles and poses.” Other scholars have been more critical of the Confederacy’s support for enlisting blacks. In his work on the Army of Northern Virginia, Joseph Glatthaar has noted, “For the most part, soldiers in Lee’s army endorsed the concept [of black enlistment].” Chandra Manning, however, challenges the idea that most troops—let alone a majority in Lee’s army—supported black enlistment.2 In this chapter, and to a greater degree than Levine or Manning, I examine Confederate soldiers’ views of black enlistment to show how Rebels who supported the controversial measure were not abolitionists, but fatalists: men willing to take limited measures to arm the slaves because they saw no other way to overcome the Confederacy’s manpower shortages and its difficulties in maintaining racial control. In reality, the enlistment debate was not about freeing Southern blacks from bondage, but another permutation of proslavery thinking. Throughout their history, white Southerners had never believed that they could keep all Southern blacks enslaved. As the war turned against the South, they envisioned black enlistment as a way of freeing a portion of their slaves while keeping most in bondage. Some historians have noted how support for black enlistment did not necessarily undermine Confederates’ proslavery notions. Paul Escott has written, “It is not surprising that some of the strongest support for arming the slaves came from [diehard] soldiers, who knew at first hand how desperately the army needed more troops.” Yet Escott also concludes that the debate on arming blacks...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813935423
Related ISBN
9780813935416
MARC Record
OCLC
870893814
Pages
296
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-15
Language
English
Open Access
No
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