Chapter Five

“THE CLOUDS ARE DARK OVER US”: THE CONVULSIONS OF 1863

January 1863 through April 1864

Even as conservative northerners and Confederates denounced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as a crime against civilization, they also derided it as hypocritical and toothless. It was hypocritical, they said, because the supposedly antislavery president who issued it had carefully denied its benefits to slaves within the Union. Nor did the proclamation free any slaves in those parts of the Confederacy that Union troops had by then already reoccupied (including Tennessee, parts of both Virginia and Louisiana, and points along the Atlantic coast). “While the Proclamation leaves slavery untouched where his decree can be enforced,” the anti-Republican New York Herald jeered, it “emancipates slaves where his decree cannot be enforced.”1 Many later commentators have repeated that dismissal.

But among those who said this at the time, the accusation of hypocrisy revealed either ignorance or dishonesty. The proclamation covered and excluded those it did because of its very nature as an extraordinary war measure, which Lincoln had issued in his capacity as commander in chief of national armies fighting to suppress violent rebellion. Lincoln believed that this circumstance, and it alone, allowed him to go beyond the powers that the federal Constitution assigned to a peacetime president. And such a war measure would be legitimate only in the war’s theaters, not behind the lines, in secure sections of the Union.

As for its being an empty threat, Republicans pointed out that the proclamation was no less potent than the Declaration of Independence had been on the day that it was issued. As Massachusetts Republican William Robinson noted, “that old Declaration of July 4, 1776” seemed an empty boast for more than seven years following its promulgation—until, that is, the Continental army finally defeated the British and thereby made good on the declaration’s promise. Until then, Robinson added, “many a mad wag among the Tories of that day had his jeer at it” with as much glee as the Confederacy now did at Lincoln’s proclamation.2

Robinson’s comparison was telling. Like the Declaration of 1776, the Proclamation of 1863 immediately became a revolutionary banner borne—and the revolutionary policy enforced—by the army as it advanced into enemy territory. And precisely because it came from the army’s commander in chief, it significantly clarified federal policy and materially influenced the army’s conduct. Abolition-minded Union officers now felt vindicated, took heart, and pressed with greater confidence to implement the emancipation policy on the ground. And more recalcitrant, conservative-minded officers found it far more difficult to act on their proslavery inclinations.3

But Confederate loyalists ridiculed the proclamation on other grounds as well. It was no threat to either the Confederacy or slavery, they insisted. For one thing, the slaves would not respond to Lincoln’s offer of freedom. They would not leave their masters, much less aid Union soldiers, because they did not want freedom, the loyalists maintained. The slaves knew they needed those masters, and that knowledge left them satisfied with their lot. Therefore, a Virginia editor claimed, “the people of the South never felt the institution of slavery was ever safer than at the present time.”4 The Richmond Dispatch crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s. “No proclamation which the Yankees have issued or may issue will have the slightest effect upon the slave population of the South,” its editor declared serenely, and “slavery will continue intact and impregnable as the rock of Gibraltar.”5

This was not a stance taken only in public. Masters wrote the same words in private—to one another as well as to themselves. Even as Katherine Stone cursed Lincoln’s measure as a “diabolical move,” she doubted in her diary that it would have much effect on her or her world.6 John B. Jones, a popular novelist and journalist who had become a War Department clerk, noted in his private journal in early January 1863 that, proclamation or no, slaves were continuing to work on fortifications around the Confederate capital. Surely that proved that southern blacks “have no faith in the efficacy of Lincoln’s Emancipation.” To be sure, Jones also knew that to Richmond’s southeast, in Union-held Norfolk, thousands of black Virginians had just celebrated their newly gained freedom with an ecstatic parade. But Jones assured himself that before long those freedmen “will bewail their error.”7

Confederate confidence in the first months of 1863 also drew upon belief that the coming year was full of promise for the slaveholders and their republic. Jefferson Davis was soon suggesting that it “will be the closing year of the war,” and there seemed reason to think so.8 On January 1, the same day that Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation, a combined Confederate naval and land force recaptured the Texas port city of Galveston, lost to the Union only a few months earlier. At the end of 1862’s fighting season and again at the beginning of 1863’s, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia twice soundly and bloodily defeated the largest Union army in the field.

The first of those encounters took place at Fredericksburg, a small city of about five thousand souls on the Rappahannock River in northern Virginia. Ambrose Burnside, who had replaced George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, led his 114,000 troops to Fredericksburg as a first step in an intended advance against Richmond, some sixty miles due south. On the Union right, Burnside repeatedly hurled troops across open ground against an enemy that, though smaller (with about 74,000 men), was well positioned, well entrenched, and fully expecting the assaults. The result was a bloody catastrophe for the Union cause. George Washburn, a member of the 108th New York Volunteers, recalled that as his comrades advanced, “from houses, rifle-pits, barricades across the roads, and other shelter, the rebel sharpshooters … opened with fearful effect.” The bloodied Union line staggered forward, but now “the vigor of the rebel artillery also steadily increased” until “a perfect storm of shot fell upon it … and in a short time acres of ground were covered with killed and wounded boys in blue.” In short, “it was a great slaughter-pen.” Some of Washburn’s comrades cursed that “they might as well have tried to take Hell.”9

Within six weeks of that debacle, command of the Union’s luckless Army of the Potomac changed hands again, with General Joseph Hooker now replacing Burnside. But neither the change in leadership nor the fact that the northern army enjoyed an even greater numerical advantage over Lee’s than it had at Fredericksburg materially changed the outcome. In their next clash, in early May 1863, Lee achieved a brilliant and devastating victory on nearly the same ground, just ten miles to the west in a battle named after the crossroads village of Chancellorsville.

A northern reporter was present when Abraham Lincoln received the news about Chancellorsville, and he recorded the Union president’s reaction to this sanguinary setback. With ashen face and wet eyes, Lincoln burst out, “My God! my God! what will the country say? What will the country say?”10 Robert E. Lee’s star rose higher than ever while Hooker’s brief tenure as army commander soon ended.

For the Union war effort, prospects seemed little brighter on the other side of the Appalachians. There Ulysses S. Grant’s critically important campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, was apparently bogging down.

Vicksburg’s strategic location made it a major prize. It sat astride the Southern Mississippi Railroad that linked the big river to the Atlantic coast. The state capital of Jackson, just to Vicksburg’s east, was a key rail connection between northern and southern sectors of the western war theater. Most important, continued Confederate control of the river ports of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana (some 150 miles to the south), blocked the Union’s freedom to freely navigate the Mississippi River for either military or commercial purposes.

Conversely, if Grant could take those two strongholds, then Arkansas, Texas, much of Louisiana, and the southern troops stationed there would find themselves cut off from the rest of the Confederacy and effectively sidelined for the rest of the war. General in Chief Henry W. Halleck quite rightly advised Grant that “the opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds.” Both the Union and the Confederate publics understood Vicksburg’s significance, which added morale, both military and civilian, to the Vicksburg campaign’s stakes. As Halleck emphasized to Grant, “The eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army.”11

In November, Grant divided that army in two, leading forty thousand troops from Tennessee down through western Mississippi while William Tecumseh Sherman led the remaining thirty thousand southward by way of the Mississippi River. But when Confederate cavalry forces under Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest successfully broke Grant’s supply and communication lines, that Union commander fell back toward his base. Sherman’s forces, unaware of Grant’s retreat, attacked the Confederates at Chickasaw Bayou, just north of the city, on their own. As he wrote afterward, Sherman “reached Vicksburg at the time appointed, landed, assaulted and failed.”12

Grant and Sherman then reunited at Milliken’s Bend, some fifteen miles northwest of Vicksburg, and tried to approach the city by water. But the terrain posed major problems of its own, and multiple, futile attempts to solve them with engineering schemes absorbed more than two more months. Much of the northern press loudly ground its teeth, and even Lincoln—who had placed great confidence in Grant—let it be known that he was growing quite “impatient.” “If the rebels can blockade us on the Mississippi, which is a mile wide,” he told a New York Tribune reporter, “they can certainly stop us on the little streams.”13 And in that case, how much more progress could the Union war effort, which had thus far depended so heavily on naval power, expect to make? After two bloody, devastating defeats in Virginia and with Grant’s army now seemingly stalemated on the Mississippi, Union morale sank.

A sense that lives were being lost in a hopeless cause fed the rage that eventually erupted in bloody draft rioting in New York City.

The U.S. Congress passed a conscription act in March 1863, about a year after the Confederacy took the same step. The Union law provided for selecting draftees with an impartial lottery. But, similar to the Confederate version, it also permitted any man who could afford to do so the right to hire a substitute—or to pay a $300 commutation fee—instead of serving. In Chicago, a Union soldier’s German-born father protested that “the patricians … need not think that only the sons of plebeians are fit and worthy to be slaughtered and that the wealthy can sidestep their obligations.”14

Serious economic grievances stoked such class resentments. The demands of the war sharply cut into the supply of consumer goods while the paper currency printed to help pay for the war drove prices high. Poorly paid urban workers, who were disproportionately foreign born, suffered the worst.15

When the new draft law actually went into effect that summer, protests, often violent, erupted in cities across the North. By far the biggest and most destructive exploded in New York City. On Monday morning, July 13, 1863, a mass march against the law proceeded, generally peacefully, through the streets. But soon and during the days that followed, the city witnessed the bloodiest rioting the country had ever seen. Before it ended, an estimated one hundred people had died. Protestant missionaries, wealthy businessmen, draft officials, and Republican newspaper offices all felt the rioters’ wrath. Class, ethnic, and racial passions combined to focus the rage of many against members of the city’s defenseless black population, whom rioters blamed for the war. Mobs burned an orphanage for black children and attacked and lynched black men in the streets. It all suggested to Catherine Edmondston and doubtless many other white southerners that henceforth “Seward and Lincoln will … have their hands full in recruiting their army.”16

During the month after Robert E. Lee’s convincing May 1863 victory at Chancellorsville, Confederate anticipations of further triumphs mounted. After reinforcing, resting, and restructuring his Army of Northern Virginia, Lee led it in early June on its boldest raid yet into Union territory, this time not into a loyal slave state (like Maryland in 1862) but into a major free state—Pennsylvania.

Lee entertained great expectations for his Pennsylvania campaign. He hoped to draw Union troops away from both Richmond and the West, encourage France and England to assist the Confederate cause (at the very least by recognizing it diplomatically as an independent state), and demoralize and weaken the resolve of the Union populace.

The Army of the Potomac confronted Lee at the town of Gettysburg. The battle’s first day ended in signal Confederate achievements; Union troops were driven from the town itself into defensive positions south of it. On the second day, however, dogged attempts to dislodge the federal troops from their entrenchments failed. On the third day, Lee—evidently convinced by earlier victories that his army could do nearly anything—launched some twelve thousand of his men across a mile of open field in the teeth of devastating musket and artillery fire. Within less than an hour, more than half of those men were dead, wounded, or missing. The next day, July 4, 1863, Lee’s mangled army limped back across the Potomac.

Although it took a while to sink in, Gettysburg had been a disaster for the South. “It was a second Fredericksburg,” a member of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina regiment observed. “Only the wrong way.”17 Over the course of three days, the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered perhaps twenty-eight thousand casualties, depriving Lee of about a third of his force, including the same proportion of his generals. The army never fully recovered from this blow, which eventually compelled Lee to curb his preference for the offensive. And instead of demoralizing the Union, as Lee had expected, the battle’s outcome energized it and deepened its hostility toward the South. Accurate reports that Lee’s army had systematically hunted down black residents of Pennsylvania and then sent them southward into slavery did little to burnish Lee’s reputation in the North.18

Meanwhile, in the western war theater, Ulysses S. Grant had at last hit upon a successful way to assault Vicksburg. In April 1863 he led his force south along the western shore of the Mississippi and crossed it below the city on transport ships. After a victory on May 1 at Port Gibson, Grant struck to the northeast, won a skirmish at the town of Raymond, and invested the state capital of Jackson on May 14. In the process, he cut Vicksburg’s supply lines from the East. Then, pivoting westward, Grant defeated General John C. Pemberton’s army in a series of encounters, driving it back into the city proper. In late May, after unsuccessfully attempting to storm its defenses, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg.

During the next seven weeks, both northerners and southerners kept their eyes fixed on the struggle for that city. Hopeful Confederates snatched at rumors repeatedly claiming that Grant’s forces had been routed.19 But on July 4, 1863, the same day that the Army of Northern Virginia retreated from Pennsylvania, Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg and his entire army, about thirty thousand strong. Four days later, Port Hudson fell as well, and Union troops occupied Natchez on July 13.20 The Mississippi River and both of its banks were now firmly in Union hands.

The reports that Richmond received from elsewhere in the western theater were just as gloomy. In the summer and fall of 1863, Union forces completed a campaign that pushed Confederates across the face of Tennessee and then drove them out of the state entirely. At the beginning of August, Union general Ambrose Burnside led two corps through the Cumberland Mountains toward Knoxville in the overwhelmingly unionist eastern part of the state.

Confederate leaders had hoped that the Emancipation Proclamation would propel unionist east Tennessee masters into the Confederacy’s arms. It did have that effect on slave owner Thomas A. R. Nelson, who now declared that “of all the acts of despotism” committed by either side during the war, “there is not one which in the slightest degree equals the atrocity and barbarism of Mr. Lincolns proclamation,” which claims the right “to abolish slavery without our consent.” Nelson had therefore decided “to join that side which at present affords the only earthly hope of successful resistance”—the Confederacy.21 But few others followed his lead, least of all among the unionists’ less wealthy rank and file.22

On September 2, 1863, Confederate forces evacuated Knoxville. That afternoon, Union cavalry colonel John W. Foster rode into the eastern Tennessee city with a small escort. “Men, women, and children rushed to the streets,” Foster reported, the women “shouting, ‘Glory! Glory!’ ‘The Lord be praised!’ ‘Our Savior’s come!’ ” As for the men, the colonel continued, they “huzzahed and yelled like madmen, and in their profusion of greetings I was almost pulled from my horse.” Throughout that afternoon and into the night “the streets resounded with yells, and cheers for the ‘Union’ and ‘Lincoln.’ ” Banners bearing the Stars and Stripes, hidden away during the two years of Confederate occupation, reappeared.23

During the following days and weeks, many more east Tennesseans who had fled the region when the unionist uprising of November 1861 was put down returned to reclaim their lives and homes and rejoin families and friends. Now it was the turn of Confederate supporters to flee the region, seeking refuge in North Carolina, Virginia, and especially Georgia. Local whites who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union often found themselves banished or sent far behind Union lines. Leading rebels in the region could find themselves jailed or made to work on Union fortifications.24

As Burnside was driving toward Knoxville, General William Rosecrans led another Union army that forced General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee to retreat almost seventy miles from the middle of the state all the way to Chattanooga in the East. Along the way, Rosecrans’s force, too, encountered unionists throwing off the Confederate yoke. Moving through up-country districts in February, Union general Joseph J. Reynolds ran across a band of men who had withdrawn into the hills to evade the Confederate draft. Spying Reynolds and his troops, the men now ran toward them. They “joined our column, expressing the greatest delight at our coming, and at beholding again what they emphatically called ‘our flag.’ ”

It seemed to General Reynolds that these “generally illiterate” people did not “understand much about the present troubles.” What exactly he found lacking in their view of the war is unclear. According to the general’s own summary of their words, these Tennesseans resented the fact “that their more wealthy and better-informed neighbors insisted upon the poor people taking up arms to oppose the [federal] Government that they had been taught to love, and which had never oppressed them,” in support of “a so-called Government which they knew only by the fact that they had been oppressed by it from its very beginning” and for the sake of people “whom they only knew by name and sight, as wealthy and overbearing, and for the defense … of a species of property with the possession of which they had never been burdened, and were not likely to be.”25

Rosecrans’s army drove Bragg’s troops out of Chattanooga in September 1863 and then resumed the pursuit. At that point, however, the Union commander stumbled badly. In the battle of Chickamauga, some fifteen miles to the south, the South’s Army of Tennessee, reinforced by divisions sent by two other Confederate forces, broke through a gap in Union lines and then routed the bluecoats, driving them back behind the Chattanooga defenses. Bragg’s army then threw up siege lines around the city anchored in high ground to the east (Missionary Ridge) and southwest (Lookout Mountain).26

On November 26, 1863, Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon crowed that Chickamauga, “one of the grandest victories of the war,” had “relieve[d] all the more southern States from the dread of invasion and ravage” while reducing “the dismayed and shattered remnants of the enemy’s grand army” to a state of “privation and suffering.”27

Unbeknownst to Seddon, however, the fruits of the Chickamauga triumph had already spoiled by the time he wrote these words. The Army of Tennessee was too small to fully surround Chattanooga and seal it off from reinforcements. Before long, General Grant relieved the siege with the aid of his own army plus two additional corps borrowed from the Army of the Potomac.

On November 25, 1863, the resulting Union force of some seventy-five thousand troops smashed through Confederate positions on the high ground outside the city. One Union division stormed up Lookout Mountain and hurled Confederate troops from its crest. Meanwhile, veterans of the Union defeat at Chickamauga, determined to reclaim their honor, charged straight up the steep north face of Missionary Ridge. They drove enemy soldiers they encountered on that charge up and over the top of the ridge so fast that they nearly trampled other Confederate troops dug in at the crest. Most of those gray-clad soldiers then scrambled in panic down the southern slope and into the Chickamauga valley, followed soon afterward by the remainder.28

This battle cost the Confederate Army of Tennessee six thousand casualties and drove it out of the trans-Appalachian war theater and into the chilly hills of northwestern Georgia.29 Only a determined rearguard defense, directed by Confederate general Patrick Cleburne, prevented the retreat from dissolving into an utter rout.

A chagrined southern journalist on the scene nonetheless thought it certainly the South’s “most ignominious defeat” to date and found it hard to explain “how a defeat so complete could have occurred on ground so favorable.”30 One Confederate general had confidently declared during the battle that if his men couldn’t fight at Missionary Ridge, they couldn’t fight anywhere.31 In the aftermath, W. A. Stephens of the Forty-Sixth Alabama drew the logical conclusion. “If we canot hold as good a place as the Misherary ridge,” he wrote glumly, “we had as well quit.”32

The major defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in mid-1863 alarmed and depressed Confederate leaders and supporters alike. The secretary of war acknowledged to Jefferson Davis that “the campaign in Mississippi was certainly disastrous” and had filled the public mind with a “shock of despondency and foreboding of the consequences.”33 The soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia were acutely aware of what they had suffered in Pennsylvania, and Robert E. Lee offered to resign his command.34 Davis refused the offer, but rumors had Lee advising his president that unless additional troops could be found, the South would have “to make peace on the best terms we can.”35

“The clouds are dark over us,” Davis told associates, and he himself felt “shrouded” in “the depths of … gloom.”36 Word of his depression circulated through the capital.37 The well-connected general Richard Taylor (his father was former U.S. president Zachary Taylor; one of his sisters had been Jefferson Davis’s first wife) later recalled that it was at this point that he and a number of other Confederate commanders first perceived signs of eventual defeat.38 Vice President Stephens had the same premonition.39 Coming only a few months after the debacles of July, the humiliating defeat outside Chattanooga seemed almost gratuitous. Confederate ordnance chief Josiah Gorgas judged it “the worst defeat we have had during the war.”40 It forced General Bragg to resign his command. (Davis replaced him with Joseph Johnston.)41

Not long afterward, Mary Chesnut attended an elite ball in the Confederate capital and there had a “long talk” with Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and senators James L. Orr of South Carolina and R.M.T. Hunter of Virginia. Their frank, pessimistic words and mood shocked her. “These men speak out their thoughts plainly enough,” she recorded. “What they say means ‘we are rattling down hill’ ” with “ ‘nobody to put on the brakes.’ ”42

The chill that Chesnut felt that night in Richmond was spreading through the Confederacy.43 Morale in the South’s Army of Tennessee, by then encamped in northern Georgia, plunged to new depths.44 Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown watched a “feeling of despondency” take hold of his state’s white population.45 A prominent Alabama planter thought public anxiety “unequaled since the Formation of our Government.”46

The Confederacy began the war convinced that God was on its side, and since 1862 southern soldiers had found comfort and reassurance in camp prayer meetings.47 But especially during the second half of 1863 the worshipful voices raised there were increasingly infused with alarm.48 “I went into the last battle feeling that victory must be ours—that such an army could not be foiled,” dispirited Confederate soldier Randolph McKim wrote after Gettysburg. “Now I feel that unless He sees fit to bless our arms, our valor will not avail.”49 An ominous event seemed to capture those dangers and anxieties. One evening some Confederate Tennessee troops were praying near a tall hickory. Unbeknownst to them, the tree had earlier been ignited accidentally during the preparation of the campgrounds. It remained standing, but its trunk smoldered internally. As the troops conducted their service, the big tree suddenly burst into flames and collapsed, crushing ten soldiers beneath its weight.50

A growing number, both within and outside the army, began to wonder whether these martial blows and dark portents spoke of some deeper truths about the war and God’s intentions therein. Georgia soldier William Stillwell soberly informed his wife in August 1863 that “unless the great God help us we are gone”—but “how can we expect Him to bless such a people as we”? Stillwell had “once believed in the justice of our cause,” but the greed and selfishness that by now seemed everywhere left him regarding that cause as “a curse & not a blessing.”51 The doubts of Tennessee master Henry Craft went deeper. “If we adopt the theory that God intended the war to free the slaves,” he reflected early in 1864, then “all the phenomena of the war harmonize and fall in with it most wonderfully.”52

Craft’s words point to the impact that Union military victories in 1863 had on slavery, especially in Tennessee and Mississippi. There and elsewhere, word of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was spreading rapidly among the bondspeople. Union soldiers distributed about a million printed copies of the proclamation as they marched through the South. Mississippi planter James H. Maury found it “amazing with what intuitive familiarity the negroes recognized the moment of deliverance.”53 When Protestant minister James Freeman Clarke inspected a refugee camp in the nation’s capital, he asked a black woman he met there whether news of Lincoln’s recently issued proclamation had reached slaves in the Old Dominion. “We-all knows about it,” the woman replied, “only we darsen’t let on” around the masters. “We pretends not to know. I said to my ole massa, ‘What’s this Marse Lincoln is going to do to the poor nigger? I hear he is going to cut ’em up awful bad. How is it, massa?’ I just pretended foolish, sort of.”54

A federal provost marshal asked a group of captured Confederate officers what effect the proclamation was having. One replied ruefully that it “had played hell” with them. A number said they had first heard about it from their slaves. How could that be, asked the puzzled Union man, since so few slaves could read the proclamation’s text?55 The words of a black refugee in South Carolina spoke to the apparent mystery: “We’se can’t read, but we’se can listen.”56

The news reached illiterate slaves through many conduits. Some heard it from the lips of a Union soldier, or from the unusual slave who had managed to learn to read despite official prohibitions, or from a literate free black man or woman, or from the curses uttered by a Confederate master. And once the news reached a region, the slaves’ “grapevine telegraph” could pass it along widely and quickly. In one district in Mississippi, the young George Washington Albright, then fifteen years old, moved from one plantation to another carrying word of the proclamation’s existence. In each locale, as he later remembered, he “got together small meetings in the cabins to tell the slaves the great news. Some of these slaves in turn would find their way to still other plantations—and so the story spread.”57

However it traveled, notice of Lincoln’s proclamation helped transform the trickle of fugitives of 1861 and 1862 into a flood. Some three thousand contrabands had reached Fort Monroe by the end of 1862. During the first five months of 1863, that number more than tripled, to ten thousand.58 Even the Confederate White House was affected. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, acknowledged that after the Emancipation Proclamation “the condition of our servants” became “unsettled.”59 That was putting it mildly. Jefferson Davis’s personal servant and Varina Davis’s maid together “decamped” toward the Yankees in January 1864. Another servant tried to torch the presidential mansion.60

As Union armies pressed forward, they began to put Lincoln’s revolutionary policy into action, and nowhere with more dramatic effect than in the plantation-rich Mississippi valley. In January 1863, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman united their forces at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point, about twenty miles north of Vicksburg in Louisiana’s Madison Parish. In search of food and other material, Union foraging parties now began to comb through the environs of Katherine Stone’s Brokenburn plantation. And as they moved, they spread the word of freedom.61 From one plantation after another, black laborers made their way to the Union camp. In some cases, they returned shortly to the plantations—but now as guides for Union soldiers looking for food and other supplies.62 “The country seems possessed by demons, black and white,” Stone exclaimed indignantly.63 Months before Vicksburg’s fall, its Confederate commander, John C. Pemberton, learned by telegram that in northern Mississippi “the negroes on divers plantations [have] taken possession and driven owners away.”64 In March 1863, Union ships and troops crisscrossed the area as they prepared to move against Vicksburg itself. Wherever they went, black people took heart.

The same was true on the Louisiana side of the river. Katherine’s mother, Amanda Stone, got a close look at this change in temperament one day when she summoned a troublesome servant named Jane, intending to reprimand her. Jane duly appeared, but “with a big carving knife in her hand and fire in her eyes” and displaying “a very surly, aggressive temper.” That night, Jane, her two children, and a man owned by a neighboring planter slipped away and headed for a Union encampment.65

Then, during the third week in March, two Union soldiers presented themselves at Brokenburn itself. After the visit, Katherine initially recorded with satisfaction that “the Negroes all behaved very well,” including Webster, “our most trusted servant.” Some of them remained out of sight, as they had been instructed, and the rest showed not “the slightest disposition to go with them, though the Yankees asked them to go.”66

Nevertheless, the Stone family, judging that “the sword of Damocles in a hundred forms is suspended over us,” decided to leave Louisiana and head west to calmer Texas.67 As they prepared to depart, Jane’s defiant independence began to manifest itself among the rest of Brokenburn’s labor force. Servants and laborers alike now hardly bothered to conceal their excitement and impatience. So while most of them still “behaved well enough,” Katherine Stone now noted, “you could see it was only because they knew we would soon be gone. We were only on sufferance. Two days longer and we think they would all have gone to the Yankees, most probably robbing and insulting us before we left.”68

Moving at night by horse and wagon, the Stone party reached a railroad station where the family encountered other masters in the same situation.69 Katherine found the scene heart-wrenching. Here were her illustrious neighbors, accustomed to comfort, ease, and deference. They had only yesterday owned “princely estates and hundreds of Negroes.” Now they were driven from their finery and mansions with nothing but “the clothes they have on”—along, perhaps, with only “ten or twenty of their hands.”70

As Union troops moved into a region, many masters tried to send or bring their slaves into the Confederate interior, a practice that became known as “refugeeing.” By late 1862, some 150,000 slaves had been refugeed into Texas alone.71 The Stones, too, had taken enslaved servants with them, including the dependable Webster. But on the road Webster discarded his mask of docile devotion. Managing to separate himself momentarily from the rest of the party, he found a horse and rode back to Brokenburn, where he rejoined the community of servants and laborers who now claimed the plantation as their own.72

As it did in Louisiana, Grant’s army carried emancipation with it wherever it went. The Mississippi planter James H. Maury felt the effects when Grant’s forces captured Port Gibson, Mississippi, on May 1, 1863. Upon the arrival of Union troops, Maury fumed, most of his slaves departed “at once.”73 When federal soldiers took Jackson a few weeks later, so planter and diarist Edmund Ruffin heard, three thousand slaves promptly abandoned masters in the surrounding county.74 And when Grant’s army finally marched into Vicksburg at the start of July, black people poured into the streets to cheer.75

The capitulation of Vicksburg and then of Port Hudson finally removed Confederate military power from the Mississippi River and its valley. And, as Robert Toombs had foreseen, that Union achievement cost the Confederacy not only its link to Texas, Arkansas, and western Louisiana but also a “vast number of slaves on both sides” of the river.76 In the days and weeks that followed the seizure of Vicksburg, tens of thousands of slaves from the countryside sought sanctuary in this new center of Union power. The Union commander in Natchez, too, watched refugees stream into that city “by thousands.”

Plantation mistress Fanny E. Connor wailed that whole stretches of the Mississippi River valley quickly became “almost depopulated of negroes.”77 On plantations where rebel masters stayed in place, many black workers now refused to either follow orders or leave the premises. Remaining on the land, they subsisted on whatever produce and cattle Union soldiers did not seize.78 When planter A. M. Paxton ordered his former slave Israel to perform a previously routine task, the man looked him in the eye and replied, “Mr. Paxton, I want to tell you that that thing is played out.”79 Elsewhere, black people did what servants and laborers on Brokenburn had already done—appropriated and farmed lands that fleeing masters had abandoned. Those estates then became places of succor for other freedpeople.80

William J. Minor, one of the wealthiest planters in the Natchez region, found the laborers on one of his plantations “completely demoralised—They are practically free—going, coming, and working when they please.” Moreover, he noted in amazement, “the most of them think, or pretend to think that the plantation and every thing on it belongs to them.”81 Things were no better on Minor’s other estates, where most of the workforce was refusing to follow orders by February 1863. Minor confronted one of them, Isaac Simpson, and demanded that he do as he was told. In response, Simpson took out a knife and began sharpening it on a brick. Minor followed him and asked Simpson what he was doing. Simpson coolly replied that “he was sharpening his knife to cut his nails.” (The ironic emphasis was Minor’s.)82 A few months later another bondsman broke into Minor’s house on that plantation, took money, and threatened two white men.83

In the spring of 1864, Union general Nathaniel Banks undertook a campaign along the Red River in northwestern Louisiana. Like McClellan’s march across the Virginia peninsula two years earlier, this campaign proved a dismal failure militarily. But as Banks’s troops moved through the river counties, they left slavery in tatters. Once again, blacks cheered their appearance. An Illinois soldier recorded that “one group of col’d girls welcomed us with waving of handkerchiefs, bonnets and aprons and a song and a hurra for Lincoln too.”84 Federal troops stripped plantations of movable property, including many male slaves of military age. Those who remained on the land, one planter griped, became “insolent & refractory, and … are more trouble & vexation than they are of use.”85

As noted, the Emancipation Proclamation did not formally apply to either Tennessee or parts of southern Louisiana that were already in federal hands before the start of 1863. But slavery was steadily collapsing there nonetheless. Catherine Edmondston learned as much in August 1863 from her sister, Honoria Cannon, who lived in a part of western Tennessee that the Union had by then controlled for a year. “All of our negroes have left,” Cannon complained, and those who still nominally owned slaves found that their “negro property is worse than useless for they do no work unless they choose & the owners dare not correct them,” for “they keep the Federals informed of everything.”86

As Union soldiers swept through middle and eastern Tennessee in the summer and fall of 1863, slavery began to break down all along the route. Here, too, slaves seemed well informed of military events. A Chattanooga editor noted that “the spirits of the colored citizens rise and fall with the ebb and flow of this tide of blue devils,” and when “the whites are depressed and go about the streets like mourners,” the blacks appear “glad as larks.”87

When northern armies reached Knoxville and Chattanooga, slaves from the countryside began making their way toward them.88 Although the Emancipation Proclamation excluded Tennessee, slavery no longer enjoyed the active, enthusiastic support of and enforcement by those who now wielded political power. It had lost, in other words, precisely the monopoly of violence that its champions always knew was essential to its survival. In January 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman judged that “slavery is already dead in Tennessee.” Where “a negro … can run off without danger of recapture,” he observed, “the question is settled.”89 The same might have been said of other parts of the Confederacy in the hands of Union armies, including counties in eastern Arkansas, western Mississippi, eastern and southern Louisiana, northeastern Virginia, and coastal North Carolina.

Jeers about the supposed impotence of Union emancipationist policies rang all the more hollow as slavery began to buckle not only where Union troops went but even in parts of the Confederacy they had not yet reached. Hearing that northern soldiers were even in the vicinity increased the boldness of black laborers while simultaneously weakening the self-confidence of their masters. Laborers began working more slowly, less intensively, and sometimes for fewer hours—or began to spend more and more of their time tending food crops for their own consumption. Hungry slaves were now also more likely to seize foodstuffs from their masters’ storehouses or kitchens.

As their ability to intimidate shrank, especially where flight to Union lines became a real option for slaves, some masters found it advisable to make concessions to their laborers.90 This had first become apparent when Union forces seized Port Royal, South Carolina, in 1861. Confederate authorities on the still-secure mainland, fearing slave flight to the enemy offshore, counseled rice planters on the nearby Savannah River to avoid “extreme coercive measures with the negroes except in cases of dire necessity” so as to “quell the uneasy feeling at present among that class of our population.”91

But reports of Confederate setbacks and Union emancipation policy spread among the slaves even in regions far from the front lines via slaves from farms and plantations closer to the fighting whose masters had transported (“refugeed”) them inland. Masters in the interior began to object to the practice. As one Virginia legislator put it, “refugeeing” exposed their own slaves to the influence of men and women who had seen and perhaps had even spoken with Union soldiers—men and women who thereby “had become imbued by the enemy with ideas and habits” that were not “consistent with the obedience and subordination proper to their condition and necessary to the peace and safety of the whites.”92

Here, too, some masters began grudgingly to bid for their slaves’ work. Mississippi slaveholder George Gorman had to offer his laborers half of whatever cotton they would raise on his land. Other masters felt driven to offer cash rewards, shorter work hours, or greater freedom of movement. In some cases, they promised to free their slaves outright at a later date. Even some Confederate army officers found themselves having to bargain with enslaved military laborers to keep them from “absconding.”93

Most slave owners greeted their sudden loss of accustomed mastery with outrage and vituperation. This was not merely an economic blow; it was a challenge to and rejection of their most basic views, values, and identities. Their “people” had betrayed them—had repaid their masters’ many kindnesses with treason. They had proved themselves to be, indeed, immoral wretches without loyalty or conscience. “As to the idea of a faithful servant, it is all a fiction,” wrote Honoria Cannon, Catherine Edmondston’s sister, in the late summer of 1863. “I have seen the favourite and most petted negroes the first to leave in every instance.” She was “so disgusted” with “the whole race,” in fact, “that I often wish I had never seen one.”94

Cannon now wished “sometimes” that “there was not a negro left in the country.” The whites would certainly be better off without them, “tho the learning to do our own work,” she admitted, “would be hard.”95 Few other former masters found that prospect inviting, either, including the Tennessee mistress who could not “see how we are to get through the winter for I do hate to work.”96 The same was true of the Louisiana planter family that Katherine Stone heard about in March 1863. Discovering one morning that almost all of their seventy-five slaves had fled, they realized unhappily that they now “actually had to get up and get breakfast” for themselves.97

More and more whites, Confederate as well as Union, now came to wonder how slavery could possibly survive the war. Too many black southerners had won their freedom. Too many others, previously resigned to their servitude, had formed hopes, expectations, and determinations that were incompatible with slavery. Too many of them were pulling hard at their chains.

Some Union generals recognized the implications. Within two months of occupying Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant mused that trying to reimpose slavery throughout the South would prove a daunting task even if the Confederate states were to reenter a Union based on the “constitution as it was.” “Slavery is dead and cannot be resurrected,” he wrote. “It would take a standing Army to maintain slavery in the South if we were to make peace to-day guaranteeing to the South all their former constitutional privileges.”98

The more perceptive, less blinkered slave owners and their politicians began grudgingly to recognize such truths. North Carolina senator William A. Graham supposed in September 1863 “that two years more of war will (whatever be its event) destroy the institution of slavery.”99 Georgia’s Margaret Daily would have found that estimate optimistic. She already considered slavery “well nigh done for.”100 A Georgia editor reported in August 1863 that “thousands of men in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi look upon slavery as doomed” whether the Confederacy survived or not.101 The Confederate vice president’s brother Linton Stephens agreed with them. “I believe that the institution of slavery is already so undermined and demoralized,” he wrote a confidant in October 1863, that it would never again “be of much use to us, even if we had independence to day.”102

Developments along the Atlantic coast could only reinforce such views. While Grant was mounting his campaign against Vicksburg during the first half of 1863, black soldiers based on the South Carolina sea islands tried to bring emancipation to the Confederate seaboard. Aiming to establish a sanctuary on the mainland for fugitives from nearby farms and plantations, black soldiers from the First and Second regiments of the South Carolina Volunteers landed on northern Florida’s coast in February and March, capturing the town of Jacksonville. Their success helped to demonstrate to Lincoln and his cabinet that blacks could indeed make able soldiers and to spur large-scale black recruitment at the end of March.103 In May, the Union’s War Department created a Bureau of Colored Troops to supervise that work.

Black men responded to the new Union policy in various ways. Some, having accepted the idea that this was a white man’s war, declined to participate. Attempts by Union officers to recruit them by brute force alienated others.104 So did the initial refusal to commission black men as officers and especially the insulting policy of paying black soldiers less than white ones—a policy abandoned only in June 1864.

But black abolitionists threw themselves into the recruitment work. “By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow countrymen, and the peace and welfare of your country,” Frederick Douglass exhorted an audience in Rochester, New York, “by every aspiration which you cherish for the freedom and equality of yourselves and your children; by all the ties of blood and identity which make us one with the brave black men now fighting our battles in Louisiana and in South Carolina, I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.”105 Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas went to Mississippi to encourage and direct the process there, recruiting many future soldiers straight out of the refugee camps. By December 1863, more than twenty thousand black men had filled thirty new regiments. An additional fifteen to seventeen thousand black soldiers enlisted in southern Louisiana with General Benjamin Butler and his successor in command, General Nathaniel P. Banks. Still more former slaves were joining up in Tennessee and Missouri.106 General Edward A. Wild, another Massachusetts abolitionist, began in the spring of 1863 to form an “African Brigade” made up of freedmen in Virginia and North Carolina.107

The U.S. Congress’s decision in the spring of 1862 to cease enforcing the fugitive slave law allowed Garland White to return to the United States. In 1863, White became the pastor of a black Methodist congregation in Toledo. After the Lincoln administration initiated the organization of black regiments, White began recruiting to them in Ohio as well as Indiana, New York, and Massachusetts. He played a particularly active role in building the Twenty-Eighth Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. Later that year White joined that regiment as a private and was soon serving as its acting chaplain.

By then the African American newspaper reporter George H. Stephens had joined in the work of forming the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment. Black churches hosted mass meetings early that spring where Stephens exhorted male listeners to sign up. After all, he said, “we have more to gain, if victorious, or more to lose, if defeated, than any other class of men.” So if we do not place “our interests, our arms, and our lives” in “the balance against oppression, treason, and tyranny,” he told a Philadelphia crowd in April, “we do not deserve the name of freeman.”108 Stephens led by example, joining the Fifty-Fourth as a private, before long being promoted to sergeant in the regiment’s Company B. The words he uttered resonated with his audiences. A black Pennsylvanian who remembered the whipping of both his mother and sister at the hands of southern masters was ready “to go down and whip them.”109

Most Confederates continued to shrug it all off. “It would astonish our ‘Northern brethren,’ ” Catherine Edmondston thought, were they to “know how little” she and others feared black soldiers.110 Edmondston knew that “Cuffee wont fight. He is afraid of cold iron & shot terrifies him.”111 The Confederate War Department clerk John B. Jones was equally unperturbed. If the North enlisted black soldiers, he predicted confidently, “we shall get their arms.”112 Surely, a New Orleans editor presumed, “the unfitness of the negro for military service” must be “known to everybody.” After all, “the inferiority of the negro, his natural dullness and cowardice, his great indolence, and his awe of the white man” was common knowledge. And if all that wasn’t enough to make the South rest easy, he went on, there was the fact that “the vast majority of negroes are contented with their situation in life.”113 Such stalwarts waved away mounting evidence to the contrary; asked to choose between those reports and beliefs deeply held and central to their entire worldview, they chose the latter.114

Quite a few northerners seemed almost as slow to grasp the emerging truth. Even after black troops proved themselves at Jacksonville, Florida, the Lincoln government continued to restrict most of them to support labor and other rear-echelon tasks, such as manning Union installations and base camps, in order to release more white troops for frontline fighting. But even such duty could plunge black soldiers directly into murderous combat.

That is what happened on June 7, 1863, about a month before Vicksburg’s fall. About three weeks into the siege of the city, a brigade of some fifteen hundred Texas infantrymen assaulted the thirteen hundred federal troops—including members of one white regiment (the Twenty-Third Iowa) and three black ones (the Ninth and Eleventh Louisiana and the First Mississippi)—who defended Grant’s base camp at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana. The defenders had dug in on the levee some 150 yards west of the Mississippi’s bank. Most of the men in the black units had been laboring in cotton fields shortly before and were as yet barely trained. They had received arms only days earlier.

When the Confederate troops attacked, ferocious hand-to-hand fighting ensued, waged with bayonet blades and muskets wielded like clubs. At last the Texans managed to break through the left side of the Union line and, flanking the rest, drove the defenders back to the river. But there, using the river’s bank for cover, Union soldiers held off their enemies until northern gunboats arrived to help persuade the Texans to retreat.

The black soldiers’ performance under fire at Milliken’s Bend impressed white observers, northerners and southerners alike. During the rebels’ initial assault, a white Union officer marveled as one especially large black soldier “passed me like a rocket” and “with the fury of a tiger … sprang into that gang and smashed everything before him.” Having broken his musket stock in the process, the man then laid into the enemy with the barrel alone and with it continued “smashing in every head he could reach.” At last the Texans surrounded him, yelling “Shoot that big nigger, shoot that big nigger,” until one of them finally managed to do so.

Union colonel Hermann Lieb later remembered that “not until they were overpowered and forced from their position” by fierce enfilading fire “were the blacks driven back” from the levee. In his own subsequent report, the Texas infantry commander, General Henry E. McCulloch, claimed that the white Union troops “ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered.” But “the negro portion of the enemy’s force” resisted “with considerable obstinacy.”115

Katherine Stone received news of the clash at Milliken’s Bend from Confederate troops wounded in the fighting there. But she found it hard to believe “that Southern soldiers—and Texans at that—have been whipped by a mongrel crew of white and black Yankees.” Surely her informants were wrong. Told that “the Negro regiments fought there like mad demons,” she simply refused to believe it. “We know from long experience they are cowards.… There must,” she insisted, “be some mistake.”116

The only mistake was the one made by Stone and others like her, who clung stubbornly to their long-cherished certainty that black people would not—and could not—fight to gain their freedom. Growing numbers of white soldiers, both Union and Confederate, had the testimony of their own eyes to prove the contrary.

Black Union soldiers serving in the Vicksburg campaign had fought their first major battle a couple of weeks before Milliken’s Bend, at the end of May 1863. Regiments of free blacks and freedmen formed in New Orleans mounted three assaults in one day on Port Hudson, which then still anchored the southern end of the last Confederate-held stretch of the Mississippi River. Those attacks failed, but there, too, the courage that the black troops showed left a deep impress upon whites who saw them in action.117 “No troops,” General Nathaniel Banks reported, could have been “more determined or more daring.”118 Another white officer agreed. “You have no idea how my prejudices with regard to negro troops have been dispelled by the battle the other day,” he wrote. “The brigade of negroes behaved magnificently and fought splendidly; could not have done better. They are far superior in discipline to the white troops, and just as brave.”119

Some 750 miles to the east, a Union force too small for the task was struggling to capture Charleston harbor. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment joined the effort in July. Three of the regiment’s companies seized a position on one of the sea islands south of the harbor and tenaciously defended it against a surprise counterattack. That defense saved a white Union regiment from encirclement and destruction. As at Milliken’s Bend, the black soldiers fended off their attackers long enough for Union naval forces to arrive and turn the battle’s tide.120

Three days later, on July 18, 1863, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts spearheaded an assault on Battery Wagner, a formidable earthen fortification that formed an important part of the harbor’s defenses.121 At dusk the black soldiers surged forward through a narrow approach. Sergeant George Stephens recalled that the enemy “withheld their fire until we reached within fifty yards of the work.” Then, suddenly, “jets of flame darted forth from every corner of the embrasure.” But the fusillades did not stop the charge. As the advanced ranks fell, the soldiers massed behind rushed forward, even over the bodies of their fallen comrades.

This desperate but hopeless charge was ultimately driven back, and the fighting that day took a terrible toll on the black regiment.122 Almost half of its men were killed, taken prisoner, or wounded—and the Fifty-Fourth’s wounded suffered grievously. After most Civil War engagements, opposing armies allowed each other to retrieve and minister to injured soldiers. Confederate officers at Battery Wagner refused the same minimal consideration to black Union troops, whose bodies therefore remained torn and bleeding on the field through the whole night after the fighting.123 The Confederate commander, General Johnson Hagood, ordered the Fifty-Fourth’s fallen white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, to be buried in a mass grave with dead black troops. Hagood considered this a fitting way to shame the dead officer. But Shaw’s father, a longtime abolitionist, saw things differently. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he is, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company.… What a bodyguard he has!”124

Three months earlier, in April 1863, Union troops mustered in Kansas captured and held Fort Gibson, on the Arkansas River, thereby menacing Confederate power in the so-called Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma). In July, nine thousand Confederate troops, white Texans and Indians, massed at nearby Honey Springs to prepare an assault on the fort. A second Union force of about three thousand white, Indian, and black troops launched a preemptive attack against the Confederate encampment on July 17. The Union commander, General James G. Blunt, placed the First Kansas Colored Infantry regiment at the center of his line, giving it the job of leading the line forward. After more than two hours of fierce combat, the Confederate soldiers fled the field, thereby leaving the Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River in Union hands.125 “The question that negroes will fight is settled,” General Blunt declared. Indeed, he added, “they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”126

Despite his deepening disenchantment with border-state slave owners, Abraham Lincoln at first hesitated to authorize full-scale recruitment of black soldiers in the loyal border states of Maryland and Missouri or in Tennessee (which, like them, had been exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation’s provisions).127

But the tide of events and ideas soon washed away this self-limiting policy, too. In October 1863, an order from the federal Adjutant General’s Office welcomed free blacks from Missouri, Maryland, and Tennessee into the army’s ranks. It also initiated the enlistment and emancipation of slaves owned by both disloyal masters and those loyal ones who gave their consent. Slaves owned even by recalcitrant loyal masters would be permitted to join if the rest of these measures failed to yield a “sufficient” number of black troops within a month’s time.128

Lincoln remained chary enough about alienating Kentucky masters to keep slave recruitment off limits there even after it began in Missouri and Maryland. To evade those restrictions, many black Kentuckians made their way into northern states, where they joined regiments formed by free blacks. Others moved southward from the Bluegrass State into Union-occupied parts of Tennessee and, claiming to be owned by Confederate masters in that state, joined black regiments mustering there. By early 1864, the steady erosion of slavery throughout the loyal border states was as difficult to miss as it was in Union-occupied portions of the Confederacy.

That spring saw Washington at last begin formally recruiting both free and enslaved African Americans throughout Kentucky as well.129 Black Kentuckians responded so readily—between one and two hundred enlisting every day—that they at first overwhelmed the recruiters’ ability to process them. By mid-September 1864, the Union had enrolled fourteen thousand black soldiers there with another six thousand expected by the end of October. When William Tecumseh Sherman, a consistent opponent of black recruitment, questioned the quality of those recruits, General Lorenzo Thomas snapped that the new black regiments were filling up with “the very best class of men.” Given “a month’s drill,” he added, he would “put the two regiments of cavalry in competition with any white cavalry in this whole country.”130

Black soldiers understood their cause. “We are fighting for liberty and right,” one sergeant explained, “and we intend to follow the old flag while there is a man left to hold it up to the breeze of heaven. Slavery must and shall pass away.”131 “ ’Fore I would be a slave ’gain, I would fight till de last drop of blood was gone,” a middle-aged black sergeant named Spencer told his comrades in Mississippi in the summer of 1863.132 The words of a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, published in a Boston paper in August 1862, became an especially popular song among black troops:

Where are you going, soldiers,

With banner, gun and sword?

We’re marching south to Canaan

To battle for the Lord.

What Captain leads your armies

Along the rebel coasts?

The mighty One of Israel,

His name is Lord of Hosts.

To Canaan, to Canaan,

The Lord has led us forth,

To blow before the heathen walls

The trumpets of the North.133

With the erosion of slavery in and near Union-held regions and the success of black regiments in 1863 and 1864, some Confederate partisans began to face squarely the toll that the war had taken on slavery and the successes that their enemy’s emancipationist policy was registering. One of these partisans was General Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee.

Having been driven out of Chattanooga at the end of 1863, that army licked its wounds in winter quarters at Dalton, in northwest Georgia. After protecting the retreat, Cleburne and his division camped at nearby Tunnel Hill, where the general spent much of December pondering what the Confederacy could do to stave off the defeat and destruction that the future now appeared to hold.

An attorney in civilian life, Cleburne produced a lengthy, carefully reasoned memorandum stressing the South’s inadequate supply of soldiers, as a result of which “our soldiers can see no end … except in our own exhaustion; hence, instead of rising to the occasion, they are sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters which promise no results.” The only way to supply the Confederacy with the combat forces so sorely required, Cleburne concluded, was to “immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and … guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.”

To justify his iconoclastic proposal, Cleburne went on to coldly review the condition to which the war had reduced slavery by the end of 1863. Slavery, he wrote, has become “our most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness” as well as “a source of great strength to the enemy.” “All along the lines,” Cleburne specified, “slavery is comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information,” an “omnipresent spy system, pointing out our valuable men to the enemy, revealing our positions, purposes, and resources.”

The slave population, the general frankly acknowledged, had proven hostile to the Confederate cause and firm in its support for the Union. Nor, he added, was there anything mysterious about those loyalties. “For many years, ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced, the negro has been dreaming of freedom, and his vivid imagination has surrounded that condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes.” The Union had won the slaves’ loyalty precisely by promising them that freedom.

The black population’s increasingly obvious pro-Union sentiments, meanwhile, were undermining morale in the white South. They stirred “fear of insurrection in the rear” and filled Confederate soldiers with “anxieties for the fate of loved ones when our armies [have] moved forward.” And when Union forces entered plantation districts, they found “recruits awaiting the enemy with open arms.” There was no point denigrating their military record, either. After donning Union blue, black men had proved able “to face and fight bravely against their former masters.”134

Cleburne circulated his memo among the officers in his command, at which point four brigade commanders, ten regimental commanders, and one cavalry division commander added their signatures to it. The general then requested and received the chance to present his views to the rest of the army’s leadership. On the evening of January 2, 1864, Cleburne rode into its main encampment, where he read his memo at a meeting of corps and division commanders.135

A few of those present seconded Cleburne’s arguments. But most angrily rejected and repudiated both the diagnosis and prescription. In the eyes of Cleburne’s opponents, suggesting that they emancipate and mobilize black men was blasphemous and treasonous. It insulted almost everything that they fervently believed about race, law, God, custom, and their economy’s most basic demands. Cleburne’s “propositions contravene principles upon which I have heretofore acted,” General William B. Bate portentously proclaimed. The memo proposes “to discard our recieved theory of government [and] destroy our legal institutions and social relations.”136 Jefferson Davis and his cabinet rejected Cleburne’s proposal shortly afterward.

The slaveholding republic, compelled to address its developing crisis, had made a decision. It would not respond to slavery’s disintegration by bidding for black southerners’ loyalty and service. It would count instead on force, as it had always done. Davis decreed that “all negro slaves captured in arms” would be turned over to officials, who would then return them to slavery. Their officers would be treated as criminals attempting to incite slave insurrection, a crime punishable by death.137

Over time, the Confederate army took on much of the policing work previously assigned to civilian slave patrols.138 Some soldiers took to disguising themselves as Union troops in order to ferret out “disloyal” black people, slave and free. In the summer of 1863, for example, southern cavalry scouts impersonating Union soldiers approached a middle-aged free black man named Samuel Hargrave and asked him to point out the location of southern troops. When Hargrave offered to do so, the Confederate soldiers whipped him and threw him in jail. Confederate troops employed the same ruse in Georgia, and a South Carolina slave caught in a similar trap was immediately hanged.139

The South’s soldiers took their most brutal revenge on blacks in—or after—battle. A young Confederate officer named John W. Graham told his father that as his troops had marched through North Carolina, white women had called out, urging them to “kill the negroes.” But, Graham added, his brigade “did not need” that encouragement in order “to make them give ‘no quarter.’ ” It was already “understood amongst us that we take no negro prisoners.”140

Southern soldiers put that understanding into practice in April 1864 at Fort Pillow in western Tennessee, some forty miles north of Memphis. There General Nathan Bedford Forrest led between 1,500 and 2,000 Confederate cavalrymen in an assault that overwhelmed a Union force about half as large. The fort’s garrison was made up in about equal parts of white Tennessee unionists and black recruits from the ranks of former slaves in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Many of Forrest’s men refused to allow Union soldiers to capitulate, massacring them after they had thrown down their weapons or raised their arms in surrender. The carnage was twice as bad among black troops as among white. “God damn you,” one southern soldier raged. “You are fighting against your master.”

“The slaughter was awful,” Confederate sergeant Achilles V. Clark subsequently recalled. “Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men[,] fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.… Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen.”141 Some of the black soldiers were lined up and executed, firing-squad style. Others were gored repeatedly with bayonets or hacked to death with sabers. Wounded men discovered in the fort’s hospital beds were murdered where they lay.

Soldier James Madison Brannock was one of many who celebrated the massacre. He was “glad that Forrest had it in his power to execute such swift & summary vengeance upon the negroes.”142 Forrest himself subsequently denied any wrongdoing and had his adjutant charge “dastardly Yankee reporters” with fabricating the massacre’s accounts out of whole cloth.143 But Forrest also boasted that after the battle the Mississippi River was “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards.” Perhaps, he suggested, what had occurred there “will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”144

In the days following the Fort Pillow bloodbath, Confederate troops executed black Union captives at Plymouth, North Carolina, and at Poison Springs, Arkansas, where they reportedly drove wagons back and forth across the bodies of wounded black troops. “Repeat Fort Pillow,” the Richmond Examiner urged the troops. “Repeat Plymouth a few more times and we shall bring the Yankees to their senses.”145

Widespread agreement with that idea explains the aftermath of a fierce battle fought a few months earlier at Olustee, in northern Florida.146 Before that February 1864 clash began, Confederate colonel Abner McCormick told his men that the force opposing them was “made up largely of negroes from Georgia and South Carolina, who have come to steal, pillage, run over the state, and murder, kill, and rape our wives, daughters and sweethearts.” “Let’s teach them a lesson,” he proposed. He, for one, would “not take any negro prisoners in this fight.” When the day’s fighting had ended, the main Union force was in retreat. But a white Georgia cavalryman passing over the battlefield could still hear “firing going on in every direction.” A junior officer explained the mysterious sounds to him; his men were killing black Union prisoners. Or, in the officer’s own words, they were “shooting niggers Sir.”147

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