For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the fourth installment of the series.
March 13, 1865: Confederates Vote to Arm Slaves
One of the Civil War’s bizarre historical footnotes took place on March 13, 1865, when the Confederate Congress voted to bolster their dwindling forces by arming black slaves. While this idea sounds crazy now, there were some precedents for slave soldiers in history—but it was still pretty crazy.
Various societies have employed indentured or slave warriors throughout history, but in most cases these were men who served as full-time soldiers and enjoyed special privileges and status in the medieval period, for example the Mamluks of Egypt or the Ottoman Janissaries. By contrast, the Confederate government proposed arming slaves previously engaged in manual labor.
The idea was first proposed in January 1864 by Major General Patrick Cleburne, a successful Confederate commander who reasoned that Southerners could either give up their slaves or risk losing everything else as well, including “the loss of all we now hold most sacred—slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood.”
The obvious question was whether the slaves would become free upon entering military service, as Cleburne advocated, or remain slaves. It’s almost impossible to imagine the latter option, since slaves would logically have no incentive to fight to remain slaves, and would indeed have a much better reason to use their weapons against their masters. But what was the point of Secession and the ensuing bloodbath of the Civil War if they were just going to give up slavery in the end anyway?
Plenty of contemporary Southern leaders and pundits pointed out the contradiction, with one Confederate officer raging that arming slaves would “contravene the principles upon which we fight,” and the Charleston Mercury warning on January 13, 1865, “We want no Confederate government without our institutions.” Even after the bill passed, Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs (top, right) wrote in a private letter to a friend on March 24, 1865:
In my opinion, the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves, instead of our own… The day the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers, they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced. But if you put our negroes and white men into the army together, you must and will put them on an equality; they must be under the same code, the same pay, allowances and clothing… Therefore, it is a surrender of the entire slavery question.
However, the question was finally settled by the intervention of general in chief Robert E. Lee (top, left), who had already attained mythic status in the South. After President Lincoln rejected offers of a negotiated peace and Congress freed the slaves with the Thirteenth Amendment, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis (top, center) were at last able to persuade the Confederate Congress to take the fateful step, with Lee arguing that it was “not only expedient but necessary,” adding, “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Incredibly, the law finally passed by the Confederate Congress on March 13, 1865 didn’t actually free the slaves. Instead, it merely authorized President Davis to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient,” and Lee to “organize the said slaves into companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades.” In fact it explicitly stated, “nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.” In other words it was left to the slave owners to decide whether they would free their slaves when they became soldiers.
Unrealistic as it was, the measure ultimately came too late as well: even if they could persuade slaves to fight with vague promises of freedom, the military situation had deteriorated so far that there was no longer enough time to give them even cursory training. Nor would arming the slaves do anything to fix the basic problems of severe shortages of food and ammunition, not to mention collapsing morale.
In an even stranger historical footnote, a small number of black slaves had actually been working with the Confederate army from early in the war, under the command of none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest, the future leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest promised to free his male slaves and their families if they would first agree to work as teamsters driving supply wagons for his cavalry regiment, and at least 30 took this deal; Forrest apparently kept his word, specifying in his will that his slaves should be freed if he was killed in combat.
In addition to his role founding the KKK, Forrest is widely condemned for the Fort Pillow Massacre in April 1864, when troops under his command killed over 300 black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender. However some historians have defended Forrest, claiming he never ordered his troops to massacre the enemy soldiers.