January through March 1865
It had become clear by the end of 1864 that the steps that slave owners had taken to preserve their cherished “way of life”—secession and war—had instead placed them and their institutions in the gravest peril. The fierce, sanguinary, and protracted war had shaken the masters’ world to its foundations. Cracks in the House of Dixie’s façade of seamless white unity widened further with each passing year. The house’s foundation—the slave-labor system—was in many places crumbling before the masters’ eyes. In the first two months of 1865, both Missouri and Tennessee, now in Republican hands, abolished slavery.1
Even now, not every Confederate stalwart acknowledged the danger. Some still believed, or hoped, or at least said, that victory lay just over the horizon. That, despite the loss of the Mississippi River and river valley, the fall of Atlanta and the virtual collapse of Confederate spirit in Georgia, the shattering of the Army of Tennessee, and the seemingly inexorable tightening of the noose around Lee’s army in Virginia.
In early November 1864, just two months after Atlanta’s surrender, Jefferson Davis offered the slave owners’ Congress another rosy assessment of their condition and prospects. On one front after another, he reported, southern armies’ efforts had been crowned with success. The North’s occupation of cities such as Atlanta signified little. In fact, he declaimed, “there is no military success of the enemy which can accomplish” the Confederacy’s destruction.2 The Richmond Examiner endorsed that sunny outlook at the end of January. “There was a time,” it granted, “when there was a danger that the Southern Confederacy would be overpowered by the violence and superior power of its enemy.” Happily, though, “that time is passed.”3 In fact, it added just a few days later, “no former period of the war has contained such elements of encouragement for the South as the present.”4
But the public did not appear to agree. Atlanta’s fall, reported former senator James Phelan, had convinced most white Mississippians of the “hopelessness of success.”5 Robert Toombs expected sunny assurances that “all is right” to continue emanating from official Richmond right “until Lee’s defeat or evacuation, and then—chaos.”6 Despairing thoughts haunted the sober and well-informed Mary Chesnut, too. The South had “but two armies,” she knew, and “Sherman was between them now.” So “what is there to prevent Sherman taking General Lee in the rear?”7 The effective destruction of the Army of Tennessee in mid-December only made that question more immediate. In January 1865, Zebulon Vance confidentially suggested to fellow governor Joseph E. Brown that their “chief aim” should now simply be “to hold the demoralized and trembling fragments of society and law together and prevent them from dropping to pieces until the rapidly hastening end of our struggle.”8
Meanwhile, the mounting fears for slavery’s future multiplied. A Texas cavalry colonel in January 1865 derided those around him who were “becoming more and more frightened every day” concerning slavery’s future. Both “you and your children,” he assured a friend, would “be waited upon by slaves as long as you all live.”9 But those at whom the colonel jeered were growing in number and grim conviction. Tennessee planter John H. Bills had concluded by the summer of 1864 that “negro slavery is about played out.”10Within a few months, former Virginia governor Henry Wise was broadcasting his belief that slavery was dead in his state, too.11
Sherman’s march immeasurably strengthened that view. “In the foreground of this picture of national military disaster,” judged the Macon Telegraph and Confederate in January 1865, “we shall not fail to discover, torn up root and branch, the institution of domestic slavery.”12 Mary Akin, wife of a Georgia congressman, agreed. “Slavery,” she believed, “is now gone.”13 Even in faraway eastern Texas, planter and jurist John T. Mills came to recognize that truth. Mills predicted in early February that slavery was “doomed” even if the South won the war.14
For those who recognized the severity of the crisis, the problem of the hour was what to do about it. Was it possible, at this late date, to rescue the masters and their republic by some change in policy or strategy? Might they yet save slavery itself and the plantation system that it served? Was there any way to salvage something from the wreckage of their prewar life, wealth, and power? Many who would not admit it publicly were asking themselves these questions in private. But different members of the southern establishment offered different answers to those questions.
In the judgment of one group of political and military leaders, at whose head stood Jefferson Davis and his closest associates, the survival of the Confederacy was of paramount importance. Only an independent country, government, and army could adequately safeguard the masters’ interests. For the sake of that Confederacy’s survival, other things—even crucially important things—could and should be sacrificed if necessary.
On November 7, 1864, Jefferson Davis greeted the reconvening Confederate Congress with a major public message. Nine months earlier, he noted, Congress had passed a law calling for the hiring or impressment of up to twenty thousand slaves to labor in support of the armies. “This act,” Davis noted without elaboration, “has produced less result than was anticipated.” The existing impressment machinery, he continued, was inadequate to meet current needs. It was designed to make material and slaves available to the army only for limited periods, to complete discreet and time-bound tasks. But the armies now needed to keep such laborers with them for more extended periods, even indefinitely, and to expose those laborers to great hazard on the front lines.
To meet these needs, Davis proposed that the government purchase forty thousand slaves outright and then train and organize them as military laborers. He then opened the door to using those purchased slaves as fully fledged combat soldiers if “our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require.” It was “unlikely,” he immediately reassured the Congress, that such a day would ever arrive. But should the Confederacy “ever” face a choice between destruction and “the employment of the slave as a soldier,” there should be “no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.”
Whatever he chose to say in public for morale’s sake, no one knew better than the Confederate president that this point had, in fact, long since arrived. But because the idea of arming blacks, and especially slaves, remained so repugnant to most whites, he broached the subject with the greatest caution.
What Davis said next was more shocking still to southern white sensibilities. Performing the kind of hazardous frontline labor now called for, he said, not to mention possibly serving as genuine soldiers, would require of slaves not merely obedience but active “loyalty and zeal.” To arouse those sentiments, Davis said, the South must promise to “liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered.”15 What was recently inconceivable had now become unavoidable.
December 1864 saw Davis make a related radical change in his foreign policy. In a final bid to enlist the active aid of Britain and France, he offered to initiate some plan for the gradual termination of slavery within the Confederacy.
This represented a complete about-face not only in substance but also in form. The Confederate government had begun the war by frankly telling the European powers that it had separated from the United States precisely in order to protect slavery from the North’s antislavery electorate.16 It had also held that, even were it so inclined, it had no constitutional power to touch the institution of slavery within its own states’ borders.17 Davis’s government publicly stood by that interpretation of the law for the duration of the war.18
Behind the scenes, however, Davis now acted very differently. He dispatched the major Louisiana planter and congressman Duncan F. Kenner to Britain and France to offer them exactly what the Confederate government had previously claimed it would not and could not do.19 Kenner was to carry a letter from Davis to Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell directing them to tell Paris and London that “the sole object” of the Confederate war effort was “the vindication of our rights to self-government and independence.” And that to achieve those goals, “no sacrifice is too great, save that of honor.”
European governments had thus far refused assistance to the Confederacy, the note continued. Was that, perhaps, because of some “objections not made known to us?” If so, and if those governments were now ready to specify those objections and their “exact terms or conditions” for recognizing Richmond diplomatically, the Confederate president wished “an opportunity … for meeting and overcoming those objections … by consenting to such terms” as soon as possible.20 The intense political sensitivity of the subject at home forbade saying things any more clearly, especially in writing.21
Because the Union’s blockade of the southern coast significantly delayed Kenner’s departure, he didn’t reach Europe until February 21, 1865, whereupon he conveyed the new turn in Richmond’s diplomacy to Mason and Slidell. The three men then set out to bring Davis’s message to Louis Bonaparte, Emperor Napoléon III, and Britain’s prime minister, Lord Palmerston.
On March 4, 1865, Louis-Napoléon responded that he was “willing and anxious” to assist the South. He had his own reasons. Bonaparte was at that moment attempting to impose a French puppet emperor upon the people of Mexico. Doing that, he well knew, contravened Washington’s long-held policy of excluding European powers from the western hemisphere. The French emperor would much rather have a friendly Confederacy for his Mexican protectorate’s northern neighbor than a hostile United States. But, mindful of France’s military limitations, he hesitated to square off against the United States without the active collaboration of Britain.
So James Mason proceeded to London. There Lord Palmerston, though “conciliatory and kind,” made it very clear that the main obstacle to Britain’s aiding the Confederacy was not slavery but the South’s weak showing in the war. London had for some time considered the southern cause to be lost; it was not now prepared to wager so much on so poor a hand.22 As a Richmond editor had anticipated more than a month before, no European power would now “accept the Southern Confederacy even if we should tender them the gift.”23
Even as these scenes played out, Jefferson Davis was engaged in a second diplomatic maneuver. For many months he had been rejecting pleas from around the Confederacy that he propose peace negotiations to the Union. But now he abruptly changed course and delegated three of his most prominent political critics to meet informally with a Union delegation—as it turned out, with Abraham Lincoln himself and his secretary of state, William H. Seward. On February 3, 1865, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, Senate president pro tempore R.M.T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell met the two Union leaders on the U.S. transport River Queen, which was anchored off Fort Monroe in a Virginia inlet called Hampton Roads.
Both Davis and Lincoln looked upon the meeting as a means to silence or at least outflank those in their own camps who had been clamoring for peace. Lincoln fully expected Davis to stand by his oft-stated refusal to dissolve the Confederacy and rejoin the United States under any conditions. He counted on Davis to repeat that position and thereby discredit the Northern Peace Democrats who doubted the need to continue prosecuting the war. And Jefferson Davis felt equally sure that Lincoln would restate his own position—that hostilities would cease only when the rebellious states returned to the Union unconditionally.24 When Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell returned from Hampton Roads with the news that Davis anticipated, all true southerners would have to acknowledge that the Confederacy’s only remaining option was continued war.
At the meeting, Lincoln and Seward adhered to a policy memorandum that the Union president had drawn up earlier for guidance. They made clear to the southern delegation that there would be no formal treaty between the United States and the Confederacy. Peace would occur only when the rebels laid down their arms and once again submitted to the “national authority.” Nor would Lincoln retreat from any of his government’s measures to date on the subject of slavery. In fact, he and Seward informed the Confederate leaders, just a few days earlier, on January 31, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives had approved a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery immediately throughout the United States. (The 1864 elections had made that possible by increasing the size of the Republican delegation in the House and by convincing a handful of Democrats that abolition had become too popular to resist.)25 The congressionally approved thirteenth amendment was heading toward the states for ratification even as the Hampton Roads colloquy began.26
The meeting on the River Queen broke up on the afternoon of February 3, 1865, without any agreement. Afterward, the South’s three-man delegation reported back to a doubtless satisfied Davis in Richmond. It had all turned out exactly as he had expected, and hewould now make the most of the result. On the following day, Davis reported to his Congress that “the enemy refused to enter into negotiations with the Confederate States, or any one of them separately, or to give to our people any other terms or guarantees than those which a conqueror may grant,” including “unconditional submission to their rule” and the “emancipation of all the negro slaves, and with the right on the part of the Federal Congress to legislate on the subject of the relations between the white and black population of each State.”27 Davis brought the same message to the Confederate public later that day.28
As Davis had hoped, Confederate loyalists responded with declarations of renewed commitment to the war effort. “Every one thinks,” reported War Department clerk John B. Jones, “the Confederacy will at once gather up its military strength and strike such blows as will astonish the world.”29 Confederate regiments assured their government of continued, last-ditch support.30 Men such as Charles James, of the Eighth Virginia regiment, were not about to “have our property confiscated, our slaves emancipated, our leaders hung” while “we become serfs in the land of our fathers.”31
But, as one of the Richmond Examiner’s editors later acknowledged, this proved only “a spasmodic revival, or short fever of the public mind.” When it passed, all that remained “among the best people” was “a dull, helpless expectation, a blank despondency.”32Sallie Putnam corroborated that description. By that point in the war, she recalled soon afterward, “despondency rested too heavily on the hearts of many to permit more than a momentary and convulsive effort to shake off the incubus.”33
The talks in Europe and at Hampton Roads had failed to solve the profound crisis confronting the southern elite. All the more reason, concluded Jefferson Davis and his political allies, to move ahead with the idea of offering freedom to slaves who would take up arms and fight in the ranks of southern armies. The plan received an incalculable boost when Robert E. Lee publicly endorsed it in February and when most of Lee’s troops announced their assent in regimental resolutions passed shortly afterward.
Davis’s proposal seemed to fly in the face of southern white culture, proslavery ideology, and the Confederacy’s very reason for being. It therefore touched off a heated, prolonged, wide-ranging, and very public debate. As the North Carolina legislature’s omnibus protest viewed it, Davis’s proposal “would be wrong in principle, disastrous in practice, an infringement upon states rights, an endorsement of the principle contained in President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, an insult to our brave soldiers and an outrage upon humanity.”34
How can we allow black men to become soldiers, R.M.T. Hunter demanded, when “the condition of the soldier” is one “socially equal to any other in society”?35 In North America, slavery’s justification rested largely on claims that Africans and their descendants were uniquely suited to dull, arduous labor but incapable of assuming the responsibilities of free people, citizens, or soldiers. To recruit black men into Confederate armies now, exclaimed Davis’s critics, would mean confessing that slavery was based on a lie. The reigning ideology, furthermore, held that blacks, because incapable of governing themselves, needed masters both to discipline and to look after them. Freedom was not only useless to them but positively harmful. How could the masters’ government now offer to reward them with something that whites had always said would ruin blacks’ lives? Finally, Davis’s plan undermined the claim that blacks recognized their inability to thrive in freedom and were therefore satisfied to be slaves. Offering them liberty as a reward implicitly admitted that they longed for freedom.
At least as important as these ideological objections were a number of more practical ones. One of these acknowledged that enslaved black men ardently wished to be free, consequently resented both their masters and the Confederacy deeply, and had become unbreakably loyal to the Union cause. If we now arm and train such people, this objection concluded, we will soon find ourselves facing the business end of their muskets.36
Expectations that such black soldiers would prove loyal to the Union rather than the Confederacy rested in part on another important fact: The Union was offering slaves a better deal. At most, Jefferson Davis was talking about freedom solely for those military-age males whose masters were prepared to volunteer them. He offered no freedom at all to their parents, children, siblings, friends, and neighbors. Abraham Lincoln, in contrast, had already declared all Confederate slaves to be free. Confront slaves with these two competing offers, a Georgia editor predicted, and they “would soon perceive the incentives are unequal.” And then “who can doubt which side they will take?”37
Of course, a slave might conceivably accept Davis’s offer despite its flaws if he thought that Richmond was likely to win the war. In that case, Confederate freedom might be the only one available. But the dramatic turn that the tide of war had taken with Atlanta’s fall and Lincoln’s reelection made it unlikely that southern blacks would see things that way.
But the most fundamental and most powerful objection to Davis’s plan was that, in the words of Mississippi planter and congressman Henry C. Chambers, it would in practice “subvert the labour system, the social system and the political system of our country.”38Our president seems to have forgotten, he and others cried, why we are at war at all. The South left the Union, formed its own country, and took up arms in order to bar the door to emancipation. But now, the Charleston Mercury raged, “the Confederate Government threatens to put upon us all the evils we threw off the dominion of our Yankee enemies to avoid.”39 Davis’s proposition, agreed the Macon Telegraph and Confederate (and many, many others), constituted “the abandonment of the whole object of the war.”40 It would, Zebulon Vance protested, “surrender the entire question which has ever separated the North from the South,” would turn secession and our war effort into “a mere objectless waste of human life.”41
Some of the measure’s champions responded coyly to this most fundamental of objections. The editors of two Richmond papers declared that they and the white South as a whole had been fighting not for the sake of slavery but to secure states’ rights and southern independence. “We are told by some horrified individuals,” said the Richmond Sentinel in affected surprise, “that this is ‘giving up the cause.’ ” But, its editor demanded, just what cause are they referring to? “We thought that independence was, just now, the great question.”42 “This war is waged for the liberty, independence, and nationality of these States,” the Enquirer chimed in, and it was “for this object only” that “the people have made the tremendous sacrifices of the last four years.” It follows as night the day that “any measure which secures the liberty, independence and nationality of these States is justified and made our imperative duty.”43
Davis’s opponents found this claim simply laughable. Yes, they retorted, we value states’ rights. But the purpose of those rights has always been to protect the southern master from interference by a potentially hostile national government. All southerners knew that “slavery—aggressions upon it by the North, apprehensions for its safety in the South”—was the “cause of Secession” and that “all other questions were subordinate to it,” one Georgian now reminded his president. “The principle of State Sovereignty” was “important to the South principally, or solely, as the armor that encased her peculiar institution.”44 They had finally opted for full-scale independence for the same reason—to guarantee slavery’s future. “Of what value is ‘self-government’ to the South,” one Texan demanded, once “the very fabric of Southern prosperity” has been lost?45
Objections such as these finally cut to the core of the Richmond regime’s problem. How could it offer enough to its slaves to attract them to its banner while simultaneously retaining enough of the old South to make the war worth winning?
The most candid reply to this question was rarely heard in public. It held that slavery was already dead, or at least was at death’s doorstep. The only real question now was, what will replace it? And that was why southern whites had to be ready to do almost anything to win the war and keep the Confederacy secure. Because only then would they be the ones to answer that crucial question. Yes, Davis’s plan might well require that all the slaves be formally freed. But if that helped to keep the Confederacy alive, then white southerners (and not northern abolitionists) would define the meaning and set the limits of black freedom. Southern masters would retain not only their own personal freedom and the rest of their considerable property; they would also keep political power in their own hands. And that would allow their politicians in Richmond and the various state capitals to shape an emancipation process that best served the masters’ needs. They would dictate the pace as well as the nature and degree of freedom that the former slaves received. So, the Richmond Sentinel pointed out, even if Davis’s plan left southerners “stripped of property” in human beings “but master of the government,” their position would still “be infinitely better than if” they were “despoiled by the enemy” and subjected to his rule.46
General Patrick Cleburne had made this very point when he proposed arming and freeing slaves back in the winter of 1863–64. “It is said slaves will not work after they are freed,” Cleburne had noted in his memorandum, but that problem could be solved by the combination of economic necessity (their need to make a living) and “wise legislation.”47 The general had explained the point further while talking with a Confederate congressman. “If the Yankees succeed in abolishing slavery,” Cleburne said, “equality and amalgamation” between black and white would follow. But “if we take this step now, we can mould the relations, for all time to come, between the white and colored races.” This would allow southerners to “control the negroes” and make sure that “they will still be our laborers as much as they now are.” The Irish-born Cleburne found an analogy in the way that the British Empire had stripped legally free Catholics in his birthplace of their civic rights in order to dominate them economically. The lesson, Cleburne noted tartly, was that “writing a man ‘free’ does not make him so.”48
When Jefferson Davis’s government belatedly adopted the substance of Cleburne’s proposal in the late fall of 1864, it also accepted his thinking about the place that ex-slaves would occupy in the Confederacy’s postwar economy and social structure. In a private letter to an old friend, Confederate secretary of state Judah P. Benjamin explained that if the Richmond regime could survive the war and set the terms of slavery’s dissolution, then “ultimate emancipation” would come to members of the “inferior race” only after they first passed through “an intermediate state of serfage or peonage.” He did not bother specifying how long that “intermediate state” might last.49 The main thing right now, said the Richmond Enquirer, is “to use negroes as soldiers,” even if that requires freeing them. Then, when their aid brings us victory and “quieter times,” the South would be in a position to formulate what it delicately termed “the definite arrangements which may thus become needful.”50 If southerners control the emancipation process and direct it in their “own way,” agreed the Lynchburg Virginian, they would also be the ones to “fix the status of the freedmen” and “regulate their conditions” in society.51
Jefferson Davis and his government found their core congressional support for this measure among men whose districts had already been lost to the enemy and therefore had less to fear from radical Confederate measures. Most planters still under Confederate rule, however, continued to oppose placing their slaves in the army.52 Some simply refused to consider sacrificing their own property, no matter what the reason. One editor described such masters as “Camp Meeting patriots, who ran well, so long as their homes, their property and their persons were safe, but who have grown suddenly lukewarm, when sacrifices were to be made for the country and the cause.”53 Such people, one soldier acidly observed, certainly “would like” to see the Confederacy triumph “and no doubt weary heaven with their prayers for peace and independence.” But they prayed at least as fervently “to get through with whole skins and full purses.”54
Some obstinate masters seemed oblivious to the Confederacy’s peril. As War Department clerk John B. Jones put it, “They have not yet awakened to a consciousness that there is danger of losing all.”55 A Florida congressman thus insisted that there was “nothing in the present aspect of our military affairs” to “justify the hazardous experiment” that Davis proposed.56 Of course, Davis’s own assurance in November 1864 that black troops were not yet needed—and would likely never be needed—did little to promote public appreciation of the crisis.
And then there were the old South’s dead-enders, those “slaveholders on principle” (in Catherine Edmondston’s proud self-designation) who preferred defeat and destruction to any infringement on their prerogatives. “We want no Confederate Government without our institutions,” the Charleston Mercury shouted. “And we will have none.”57 One of Mary Chesnut’s acquaintances announced, “If we are to lose our Negroes, we would as soon see Sherman free them as the Confederate government.”58
Still other Confederates accepted the notion of enlisting black soldiers but rejected the idea of granting them freedom. Since slavery was good for the black man, opined the Richmond Whig, “it is right that he should assist in defending the blessings he himself enjoys” in that condition.59
But if the last four years had taught such people nothing about the South’s black population, Jefferson Davis and his advisers had at least learned something. They had learned that the slaves ardently wished for freedom and would now fight for nothing less. Only the hope of liberty, Davis had pointed out in November, would give the black soldier a sufficient “motive for a zealous discharge of duty.”60 Robert E. Lee later predicted, “Unless their freedom is guaranteed to them [we] shall get no volunteers.”61 Nor, Lee added, would arming slaves without promising them their freedom be “wise.”62 He said no more on the subject, but an anonymous letter in the Richmond Enquirer did. It warned against the “dangerous experiment” of “withhold[ing] from the negro soldier his personal freedom” at the same time that freedom is being “freely offered to him in the neighboring hostile camp.”63
In early February 1865, Jefferson Davis’s allies in Congress introduced a number of measures designed to implement the proposal to turn slaves into soldiers. All were tabled or killed. Then, on February 10, Mississippi’s Ethelbert Barksdale brought a bill into the House of Representatives that pointedly declined to empower the Confederate government either to conscript or to emancipate a single slave. It would enable the president only “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.” Barksdale’s bill went on to promise that “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.”64
Barksdale celebrated the toothlessness of his bill. It proposed, he boasted, to raise black troops “not by wholesale conscription—not by compulsion—not by exercise of unauthorized power to interfere with the relation of the slave to his owner as property, but by leaving this question, where it properly belongs—to the owners of slaves, by the consent of the States and in pursuance of the laws thereof.” Surely this abject surrender in the face of masters’ protests would finally allow the bill to become law. Or, Barksdale challenged, “Are gentlemen unwilling to let the people have the privilege of contributing their slaves” even “as a free-will offering?”65
In the meantime, the military situation had gone from dire to desperate. In the few months since Davis stunned the South with his November proposal, the battle of Nashville had all but obliterated the Army of Tennessee, Savannah had fallen, and in South Carolina Sherman’s forces had taken both Columbia and Charleston. East of the Mississippi River, Confederate military forces now firmly controlled only shrinking islands of territory.
Nevertheless, getting even Barksdale’s very weak bill passed required considerable arm-twisting. During the first week of March, the Virginia legislature instructed its two Confederate senators (R.M.T. Hunter and Allen T. Caperton) to swallow their personal objections and vote aye.66 That permitted the Senate to pass the bill on March 8, 1865, and even then only by a one-vote majority.67 The Confederate House assented the next day, and Jefferson Davis signed it into law on the thirteenth.68
Ten days later, the army issued orders implementing the new law. Those orders specified 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.” In other words, any master volunteering a slave had to manumit him first, and any black men offered in that way had first to agree to serve.69
Robert E. Lee delegated oversight of the project to his erstwhile corps commander, Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, and recruiters were sent to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and various parts of Virginia.70
The new Confederate law authorized raising a total of three hundred thousand black troops, and Confederate leaders and journalists predicted quick success in doing so. But the actual results proved far, far smaller. No black soldiers at all materialized other than in Richmond and Petersburg. Within those two cities, white officials mustered black employees of two local hospitals into a company or two of a local defense corps (not part of the regular Confederate army) alongside convalescing patients.71 At least some of these men were ordered into the trenches to defend against a mid-March Union raid.72 But other reports suggest they may have gone there without uniforms or arms.73
And what of the main event—the plan to recruit black soldiers directly into the army proper, the point of the government’s bill? Richmond newspapers were “glad to report” later that month that “recruiting is going on rapidly” and that “the owners of slaves are coming up heartily.” As for the slaves themselves, enthused another paper, they were now in the grip of a veritable “military fever.”74 Other reports, however, disclosed that recruiters had by then managed to enlist only thirty to forty men—and by the war’s end, perhaps only twenty more. The Davis regime drilled, fed, and housed those men at military prison facilities under the watchful eyes of military police and prison wardens.75 That treatment belied all the government’s public assurances of good faith and warm welcome. So did reports that white boys threw mud at black soldiers on city streets. General Ewell himself objected that “some of the blk soldiers were whipped they were hooted at and treated generally in a way to nullify the law.”76
Not surprisingly, some observers found the black soldiers dispirited. The son of a Virginia legislator watched them drill one day. Their body language told him that they were “engaged in a work not exactly in accord with their notions of self interest” and that “their inclination must have been against engaging on the Southern side.”77 When the troops paraded through the streets, another journalist recorded, black bystanders looked on “with unenvious eyes.”78
A major reason for the dismally small number of recruits was that most masters refused to cooperate—a response that should have surprised no one. Since the second year of the war, after all, masters had proved less and less willing to allow the army to use their slaves even temporarily, and even as laborers. Now the government was expecting the same people to surrender their slaves permanently and put muskets in their hands. Georgia’s leading newspaper, for one, had been “very certain” for months that slave owners would withhold their men.79
Masters of all political shadings bore out that prediction. William A. Graham, a major planter and former North Carolina governor, had led the fight in the Senate against the Davis plan. On March 10, 1865, he told his wife about the bill’s passage. “It provides, however, that they shall only be taken with the consent of the masters,” he noted, “and this I hope no master will yield. Certainly I shall not.”80 Two days later Graham invited a longtime ally back in Raleigh (David Swain, another former governor) to help persuade others to fold their arms as well. “I trust no master in N.C. will volunteer or consent, to begin this process of abolition,” he wrote, “as I feel very confident the [state] Gen’l Assembly will not.”81 As Graham well knew, the Tar Heel State’s legislature had gone on record more than a month earlier “against the policy of arming slaves.”82
Graham and Swain had been unionists until the war began. But consistently secessionist fire-eaters such as Catherine Edmondston were no readier to “yield their property & their hopes,” much less to “allow a degraded race to be placed at one stroke on a level with them.”83 The same opposition among masters that had so long made a black-soldier law inconceivable now made it unworkable.
While some masters opposed and resisted Davis’s scheme reflexively or on principle, others did so because they thought they knew a better method with which to protect their interests. A Lynchburg newspaper reported that “some prominent gentlemen from Virginia” opposed Davis’s plan because they were “hoping to save their property” by “fall[ing] back into the arms of Lincoln.”84 Word reached the Richmond Enquirer that “certain members of Congress, representing large slaveholding constituencies,” had “openly declared their preferences for reconstruction, with Federal guaranty of slavery, to the emancipation of slaves as a means of securing the independence of the Confederate States.”85
War Department clerk John B. Jones heard much the same thing—as well he might, because the idea was being floated within the department itself.86 At the end of December 1864, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell told an underling “that the only question now is the manner” in which the Union would be “reconstructed”—that is, “whether the South shall be destroyed and subjugated” or whether it could find a way to return not only with its honor but also with its “rights” intact, even if without its many former “advantages of power, influence, or political supremacy.”87 A variation on that theme was the hope that even if slavery were abolished, white landowners would be permitted through state and local laws to impose tight controls over the lives and labors of the freedpeople.
Those who nurtured such hopes included quondam unionists such as Alexander Rives, a prominent Virginia planter and jurist. Rives hoped that southern masters might “be restored to their rights under the Union.”88 So, of course, did North Carolinian William Woods Holden and his supporters, as well as John J. Seibels and others in Alabama who had sought to strike such a deal in the spring of 1864.
Joining these men now (according to War Bureau chief Robert Garlick Hill Kean) was “a large part of the Congress,” including powerful members of the planter establishment.89 Former North Carolina governors David Swain and William Graham and the state’s current treasurer, Jonathan Worth, had all opposed peace talk early in 1864 when they feared it could only weaken the Confederacy and encourage the war party in the North. They had then stood, like Zebulon Vance, for holding out so long as they saw any chance of maintaining the independence of the slave states through war. As one planter associated with them put it, “Until it has been demonstrated that these means are inadequate to the accomplishment of independence, it is our duty to persist in the struggle for it.” But, he then added, “When we have satisfied ourselves, by the exhaustion of these means, that our original aim cannot be attained, we will ‘accept the situation’ and make the best terms in our power.”90
For some, this point had arrived in the autumn of 1864 with Atlanta’s loss and Lincoln’s reelection.91 The sharp drop in Confederate fortunes that then convinced Jefferson Davis to arm and free slaves had led Graham and his circle to opposite practical conclusions. They were now for seeking the most advantageous possible basis on which to be reintegrated into the Union. In late January, Graham predicted that the North, in order to restore the Union without further bloodletting, would offer them attractive terms—would “guarantee slavery as it now exists, and probably make other concessions” as well.92
The abortive meeting with Lincoln and Seward at Hampton Roads did not extinguish those hopes, in part because some leading Confederates refused to read its meaning in the same way that Jefferson Davis reported it. The southern delegation—Vice President Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War Campbell, and Senator Hunter—knew more than the official account had disclosed. While on board the River Queen, they had heard Lincoln and Seward say things that offered them a wider choice of options than Davis had conveyed to Congress and the public.93
According to privately circulated accounts by Campbell and Stephens (and endorsed years later by Hunter), Lincoln and Seward had noted that federal courts might yet rule the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional or, at least, null and void once the war was over. Seward had observed that the prospective Thirteenth Amendment was a war measure and that it, too, might lose public favor with the end of hostilities. Seward had also said that the states of the former Confederacy, upon rejoining the Union, might help deprive the proposed amendment of the supermajority (three-quarters) positive vote it would need for ratification.
It seems doubtful that Lincoln thought this likely, mentioning the ideas to help some proslavery bitter-enders to swallow reunion. Even if reunion did impose general emancipation, the Confederate conferees quoted Lincoln as saying, the federal government might yet compensate masters for their losses. As for other forms of rebel property, Lincoln promised to exercise great “liberality” in implementing the confiscation laws.94
The Campbell-Stephens version of what had transpired at Hampton Roads circulated at the time among the members of Graham’s circle and very possibly beyond, encouraging masters to hope that the war’s prompt cessation would leave them better off both economically and politically than would its continuation.95 In any case, North Carolina state treasurer Jonathan Worth observed, “this is the only hope of saving anything from the wreck.” Only in this way might southerners “avoid further abolition, confiscation, and prosecution for treason.”96
As Confederate senators dithered over the black-soldier bill in late February 1865, and while more and more planters placed hopes of maintaining their power and property in reunion rather than military victory, the Richmond Enquirer pointed frantically at the swiftly deteriorating military situation. Grant was “gradually and perhaps surely extending his lines around Petersburg and Richmond,” threatening “every moment” to burst through Richmond’s defenses.97 Meanwhile, Sherman’s forces were “rushing through the Carolinas like an avalanche.”98
In accord with Grant’s decision to continue campaigning through the calendar year, Sherman’s army moved out of Savannah on the first day of February. Organized as before into four parallel columns, its men began churning a wide path through South Carolina, commandeering or destroying property with even greater thoroughness and enthusiasm than they had displayed in Georgia. For this, they firmly believed, was the state that had caused the war in the first place. “The army burned everything it came near in the State of South Carolina,” Union major James Connolly told his wife, “not under orders, but in spite of orders. The men ‘had it in’ for the State and they took it out in their own way.”99
Sherman’s troops encountered more resistance in South Carolina than in Georgia, and the rain-soaked wintertime terrain was more daunting, too. Though Sherman charted a line of march that led inland from the coast toward drier ground, his soldiers still found themselves slogging through swamps and laboriously fording or bridging rivers. White soldiers and freedmen cut down trees to “corduroy” soggy roads (that is, pave them with logs).
On February 17, 1865, Sherman’s troops entered the state capital of Columbia. Slaves and free blacks lined the streets and cheered ecstatically. As a member of Sherman’s staff later recalled, a “stranger looking on would have believed that this was a triumphal return of some favorite hero, rather than the entry of the conqueror who had struck another blow at the heart of people who hate him and his.”100 Of course, Sherman was both things simultaneously, though to different parts of the local population.
Nearly two years earlier, in May 1862, Robert E. Lee had ordered the Confederate general then in command at Charleston to defend that symbolically important city “to the last extremity … street by street and house by house as long as we have a foot of ground to stand upon.”101 But in seizing Columbia, Sherman had now outflanked and isolated the Charleston garrison, cutting its transportation and communication links to the state’s interior. So, one day after Columbia’s occupation, Charleston—secession’s cradle—meekly surrendered to another Union force that had until then been inconclusively besieging it from the sea.
The first federal unit to enter Charleston was the Twenty-First U.S. Colored Infantry regiment, now incorporating the Third, Fourth, and Fifth South Carolina Volunteer regiments that had been raised in the Department of the South. It was filled with men who had shortly before been slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. A few days later, the all-black Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts regiment joined the Twenty-First. A mounted black soldier carrying a banner proclaiming “Liberty” led a column down the main thoroughfare.102 The regiment’s colonel accepted the humbled city’s surrender.
As Union soldiers strode through the streets, slaves and free blacks of Charleston and its environs flocked to their side. Two weeks after Union investment of the city, black residents celebrated their liberation with a massive procession, including bands, black Union soldiers, members of many manual occupations, ministers, a large contingent of women, and some 1,800 children who sang that although “John Brown’s body lies a moulding in the grave, We go marching on!”103
In February, meanwhile, U.S. Marines had occupied the city of Georgetown on the northern coast of South Carolina; a Union admiral declared slavery dead in the surrounding district. On March 1, 1865, troops from both the 54th Massachusetts and the 102nd and 103rd USCT regiments took control of the town.104 A few days later, groups of soldiers fanned out into the countryside to bring the news of freedom to the area’s black population. Those visits touched off additional explosions of joy and retribution. Freedmen burned buildings and made off with furniture, clothing, linens, food, cattle, and other pieces of their former masters’ property.
The meaning of such acts now dawned on South Carolina plantation mistress Adele Petigru Allston who, not then at home, was receiving detailed reports from a neighboring planter. It all showed, Allston realized, that “they think it right to steal from us, to spoil us, as the Israelites did the Egyptians.” Her epiphany no doubt accurately interpreted the sentiments of the freedpeople involved. Field laborers, announcing their refusal ever again to work under drivers, began pulling down fences and “divided out” the land.105Allston’s neighbor advised her that “if you come here all your servants … will immediately leave you.” They will prove “more or less impertinent as the humor takes them and in short will do as they choose.” Only those blacks with families too large to move easily were staying in place and maintaining a “veneering of fidelity.”106
Also in February, Union troops under the command of General John Schofield, using recently captured Fort Fisher as a base, began to encircle Confederate forces in and around Wilmington, North Carolina. The gray-clad troops retreated, and on the night of February 21, 1865, they evacuated the city. Union soldiers marched in the following day.
Several days afterward, nearly 1,600 black worshippers filled Wilmington’s Front Street Methodist Church, where Rev. L. S. Burkhead, a white minister, had for years presided over the predominantly black congregation. By tradition, the class leaders, all of whom were black, would conduct Sunday’s sunrise prayer meeting. But as Rev. Burkhead took his seat near the altar, the mood of the assemblage suggested that this would be a unique service. “The whole congregation was wild with excitement,” he recalled years later, “and extravagant beyond all precedent with shouts, groans, amen, and unseemingly demonstrations.”
The congregation sang a hymn strikingly appropriate for the occasion, “Sing unto the Lord a New Song,” and when it had finished, an unfamiliar black man strode to the pulpit. He was William H. Hunter, the son of a North Carolina slave who had eventually managed to buy freedom for himself and his family and then took them to the North. Hunter was now a chaplain in the U.S. Army, a member of one of the black Union regiments that had entered the city. The church’s class leaders had invited him to the service.
“I listened to your prayers,” Hunter told the congregation that morning, “but I did not hear a single prayer offered for the President of the United States or for the success of the American Army. But I knew what you meant. You were not quite sure that you were free, therefore a little afraid to say boldly what you felt. I know how it is. I remember how we used to have to employ our dark symbols and obscure figures to cover up our real meaning. The profoundest philosopher could not understand us.” From the congregation came affirmations: “Amen! Hallelujah! That’s so.”
The chaplain warmed to the theme of past and present. “My brethren and friends,” he said, “I rise to address you, but I scarcely know what line of thought to pursue. When a thousand thoughts crowd upon my mind it is difficult to select that which will be more appropriate than the rest. A few short years ago I left North Carolina a slave; I now return a man. I have the honor to be a regular minister of the Gospel in the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States and also a regularly commissioned chaplain in the American Army.” He was proud to report, moreover, that just three weeks earlier “as black a man as you ever saw, preached in the city of Washington to the Congress of the United States.” That was Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. “And that a short time ago another colored man was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States as a lawyer.” That was the Boston lawyer John S. Rock. “One week ago you were all slaves; now you are all free. Thank God the armies of the Lord and of Gideon has triumphed and the Rebels have been driven back in confusion and scattered like chaff before the wind.”
According to Rev. Burkhead, the black chaplain’s words elicited a “tumultuous uproar” from the congregation. Once the service had ended, the shaken white minister retired to his parsonage to consider the implications of what he had just seen and heard. Like so many other whites who had presided over black congregations, he would soon receive a formal demand from his parishioners that he surrender the pulpit and that the church affiliate with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.107
William Tecumseh Sherman’s army entered North Carolina a week or two later. His soldiers went easier on the residents of that state, whom they considered less responsible for the war than their more southerly neighbors.
Some panicky Tar Heel whites nevertheless found evidence everywhere of intended slave insurrections that would rape and slaughter whites indiscriminately. They reacted violently. Reports told of many blacks being lynched.108 Just inside the state’s southern border, for example, a group of slaves had begun meeting to plan a mass escape to Sherman’s column. The home guards who discovered and captured them hanged twenty-five.109 Thousands of other black people succeeded in leaving farms and plantations and followed in Sherman’s wake.110
Black North Carolinians received different kinds of treatment from different kinds of Union soldiers. “One Yankee would come along an’ give us sumptin’,” Fannie Dunn recalled, “an’ another would come on behind him an’ take it. Dats de way dey done.… One give mother a mule,” and another “give mother a ham of meat.” But a third soldier then “come right on behind him an’ took it away from her.”111 John Bectom recalled later that a Union soldier had caught one of his master’s shoats, killed and butchered it, and gave one of the hindquarters “to me, and told me to carry and give it to my mother.” But another Yankee soldier stole a pair of shoes from the same woman.112 Such recollections were common.113
In the course of their long march, Sherman and his men asked black people they encountered about Confederate hopes to arm them. On the way to Savannah in early December 1864, Sherman told a group of older black men that Jefferson Davis “was talking about arming the negroes.” Yes, they already knew that, they replied. “Well,” Sherman asked, “what’ll you all do—will you fight against us?” “No, Sir,” came the reply. “De day dey gives us arms, dat day de war ends!” Those words, according to the adjutant who recorded the exchange in his diary, were “eagerly spoken—and the rest [of them] as eagerly assented.”114
In both North and South Carolina, Sherman’s aide-de-camp, Major George W. Nichols, heard much the same thing. In Fayetteville he spoke with an older woman as she sat surrounded by her family. “There, sir,” she said, pointing, “are my two sons-in-law. Yesterday morning their master tried to take them away, offering them their freedom if they would go into the army voluntarily; but they know better than that. They never would fire a gun against the Federals.” One of the young men spoke up for himself. “If they had forced me into the army,” he said, “I would have shot the officer they put over me the first time I got a chance.” They understood very well why slave owners were offering arms and freedom to their slaves and what it all meant. “They’d never put muskets in the slaves’ hands if they were not afeared that their cause was gone up,” the matriarch said. They were making this offer because “they are going to be whipped”—and, in fact, “are whipped now.” And just “supposing they do free the colored men who fight for them,” she said. “What is to become of us, their mothers, wives, and children at home? We are to remain slaves, of course.”115
Skeptics might discount these words and others like them as simply telling northerners what they wanted to hear. But some staunch Confederates were hearing the same things. Walking the streets of Macon, Georgia, in January 1865, a Confederate editor watched some white boys demand of a black man, “Uncle, why don’t you go and fight?” “What I fight for?” the man responded. “For your country,” a white shot back. “I have no country to fight for,” the man replied.116
In South Carolina, the Chesnut family was making similarly disquieting discoveries about their own slaves’ feelings on this subject. At the war’s start, James Chesnut, Jr., had talked to his most trusted slaves and heard (as his wife later recorded) that “they were keen to go in the army” if by doing so they could obtain freedom and a bounty. But by late 1864 that early inclination had disappeared. “Now they say coolly they don’t want freedom if they have to fight for it.” Because now “they are pretty sure of having it anyway” with the aid of Union troops.117
In late February and early March, Confederate forces made their most powerful and most promising attempt to end Sherman’s march, which had now reached North Carolina. On February 22, 1865, Robert E. Lee gave command of that effort to Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston assembled a new Army of the South, about twenty-three thousand strong, composed of a number of smaller units, including remnants of the Army of Tennessee.
About a month later, one of Johnston’s generals, William Hardee, engaged Sherman’s left wing, commanded by General Henry W. Slocum, at the village of Averasboro. Hardee sought to slow Slocum’s advance long enough for Johnston to prepare a bigger and more powerful attack. The accomplishment cost Hardee 25 percent more casualties than his enemy suffered. Three days later, Johnston launched serial assaults upon Slocum’s force at Bentonville, some thirty miles to the northeast. But on March 20, 1865, Sherman’s right wing (under Oliver O. Howard) arrived on the field, making further Confederate attacks futile. During the night of March 21, 1865, Johnston broke off the engagement after suffering losses 70 percent higher than Sherman’s. Sherman moved on toward his intended rendezvous with General John Schofield’s forces at Goldsboro on March 24. With those reinforcements, Sherman’s army now boasted some ninety thousand men. After pausing to rest and resupply, Sherman planned to head north once again—to the decisive confrontation in eastern Virginia.118
At bay in Petersburg and Richmond, Lee’s army was already disintegrating. During February and March, an average of more than eight hundred men left its ranks each week.119 Some deserters took heart from letters from family members, friends, and neighbors promising to support their decision. During the winter of 1864–65, a town in Alabama’s wire grass region hosted a dinner that honored fifty-seven deserters. Warrants were issued for their arrest, but the local constable refused to enforce them.120
Just as telling as the extent of desertion was the quality of the soldiers now leaving. They included men who had previously seemed the most loyal. They would no longer risk their lives in behalf of a cause that seemed already lost. And as that assessment of the situation spread, those who remained in ranks ceased to view those who departed as cowards or criminals. “The men on the picket line fire off their guns in the air,” Captain Benjamin Wesley Justice noted in mid-March, “& will not try to shoot down those who are in the act of deserting to the enemy.”121
Robert E. Lee knew that “the state of feeling in the country” was taking its toll on his army in Petersburg and Richmond.122 At the end of February, he informed his War Department that men “from the North Carolina regiments, and especially those from the western part of that State” were hearing from relatives and friends that if they deserted and returned to their families “they will be in no danger of arrest” because “the bands of deserters so far outnumber the home guards” back home.123
The advancing disintegration of southern armies was one of the factors that had driven Jefferson Davis to propose arming slaves and free blacks. Perhaps, he had hoped, final military defeat and the radical revolution in southern life that it threatened could be avoided by taking at least one page from the revolutionaries’ book. But the attempt had come far too late and foundered on the resistance of masters and slaves alike. There would be no black Confederate army to help Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia break the siege of Petersburg and Richmond.