The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South

Author: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson

Chapter XI. An Attempted Revolution

Almost from the moment when the South had declared its independence voices had been raised in favor of arming the negroes. The rejection of a plan to accomplish this was one of the incidents of Benjamin’s tenure of the portfolio of the War Department; but it was not until the early days of 1864, when the forces of Johnston lay encamped at Dalton, Georgia, that the arming of the slaves was seriously discussed by a council of officers. Even then the proposal had its determined champions, though there were others among Johnston’s officers who regarded it as "contrary to all true principles of chivalric warfare," and their votes prevailed in the council by a large majority.

From that time forward the question of arming the slaves hung like a heavy cloud over all Confederate thought of the war. It was discussed in the army and at home around troubled firesides. Letters written from the trenches at Petersburg show that it was debated by the soldiers, and the intense repugnance which the idea inspired in some minds was shown by threats to leave the ranks if the slaves were given arms.

Amid the pressing, obvious issues of 1864, this project hardly appears upon the face of the record until it was alluded to in Davis’s message to Congress in November, 1864, and in the annual report of the Secretary of War. The President did not as yet ask for slave soldiers. He did, however, ask for the privilege of buying slaves for government use—not merely hiring them from their owners as had hitherto been done—and for permission, if the Government so desired, to emancipate them at the end of their service. The Secretary of War went farther, however, and advocated negro soldiers, and he too suggested their emancipation at the end of service.

This feeling of the temper of the country, so to speak, produced an immediate response. It drew Rhett from his retirement and inspired a letter in which he took the Government severely to task for designing to remove from state control this matter of fundamental importance. Coinciding with the cry for more troops with which to confront Sherman, the topic of negro soldiers became at once one of the questions of the hour. It helped to focus that violent anti-Davis movement which is the conspicuous event of December, 1864, and January, 1865. Those who believed the President unscrupulous trembled at the thought of putting into his hands a great army of hardy barbarians trained to absolute obedience. The prospect of such a weapon held in one firm hand at Richmond seemed to those opponents of the President a greater menace to their liberties than even the armies of the invaders. It is quite likely that distrust of Davis and dread of the use he might make of such a weapon was increased by a letter from Benjamin to Frederick A. Porcher of Charleston, a supporter of the Government, who had made rash suggestions as to the extra-constitutional power that the Administration might be justified by circumstances in assuming. Benjamin deprecated such suggestions but concluded with the unfortunate remark: "If the Constitution is not to be our guide I would prefer to see it suppressed by a revolution which should declare a dictatorship during the war, after the manner of ancient Rome, leaving to the future the care of reestablishing firm and regular government." In the State of Virginia, indeed, the revolutionary suggestions of the President’s message and the Secretary’s report were promptly taken up and made the basis of a political program, which Governor Smith embodied in his message to the Legislature—a document that will eventually take its place among the most interesting state papers of the Confederacy. It should be noted that the suggestions thrown out in this way by the Administration to test public feeling involved three distinct questions: Should the slaves be given arms? Should they, if employed as soldiers, be given their freedom? Should this revolutionary scheme, if accepted at all, be handled by the general Government or left to the several States? On the last of the three questions the Governor of Virginia was silent; by implication he treated the matter as a concern of the States. Upon the first and second questions, however, he was explicit and advised arming the slaves. He then added:

"Even if the result were to emancipate our slaves, there is not a man who would not cheerfully put the negro into the Army rather than become a slave himself to our hated and vindictive foe. It is, then, simply a question of time. Has the time arrived when this issue is fairly before us? ...For my part standing before God and my country, I do not hesitate to say that I would arm such portion of our able-bodied slave population as may be necessary, and put them in the field, so as to have them ready for the spring campaign, even if it resulted in the freedom of those thus organized. Will I not employ them to fight the negro force of the enemy? Aye, the Yankees themselves, who already boast that they have 200,000 of our slaves in arms against us. Can we hesitate, can we doubt, when the question is, whether the enemy shall use our slaves against us or we use them against him; when the question may be between liberty and independence on the one hand, or our subjugation and utter ruin on the other?"

With their Governor as leader for the Administration, the Virginians found this issue the absorbing topic of the hour. And now the great figure of Lee takes its rightful place at the very center of Confederate history, not only military but civil, for to Lee the Virginia politicians turned for advice.* In a letter to a State Senator of Virginia who had asked for a public expression of Lee’s views because "a mountain of prejudices, growing out of our ancient modes of regarding the institution of Southern slavery will have to be met and overcome" in order to Attain unanimity, Lee discussed both the institution of slavery and the situation of the moment. He plainly intimated that slavery should be placed under state control; and, assuming such control,

he considered "the relation of master and slave...the best that can exist between the black and white races while intermingled as at present in this country." He went on to show, however, that military necessity now compelled a revolution in sentiment on this subject, and he came at last to this momentous conclusion:

* Lee now revealed himself in his previously overlooked capacity of statesman. Whether his abilities in this respect equaled his abilities as a soldier need not here be considered; it is said that he himself had no high opinion of them. However, in the advice which he gave at this final moment of crisis, he expressed a definite conception of the articulation of civil forces in such a system as that of the Confederacy. He held that all initiative upon basal matters should remain with the separate States, that the function of the general Government was to administer, not to create conditions, and that the proper power to constrain the State Legislatures was the flexible, extra-legal power of public opinion.

"Should the war continue under existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all.... His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions..."

"The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect of the measures...upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation. As that will be the result of the continuance of the war, and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause..."

"I can only say in conclusion, that whatever measures are to be adopted should be adopted at once. Every day’s delay increases the difficulty. Much time will be required to organize and discipline the men, and action may be deferred until it is too late."

Lee wrote these words on January 11, 1865. At that time a fresh wave of despondency had gone over the South because of Hood’s rout at Nashville; Congress was debating intermittently the possible arming of the slaves; and the newspapers were prophesying that the Administration would presently force the issue. It is to be observed that Lee did not advise Virginia to wait for Confederate action. He advocated emancipation by the State. After all, to both Lee and Smith, Virginia was their "country."

During the next sixty days Lee rejected two great opportunities—or, if you will, put aside two great temptations. If tradition is to be trusted, it was during January that Lee refused to play the role of Cromwell by declining to intervene directly in general Confederate politics. But there remained open the possibility of his intervention in Virginia politics, and the local crisis was in its own way as momentous as the general crisis. What if Virginia had accepted the views of Lee and insisted upon the immediate arming of the slaves? Virginia, however, did not do so; and Lee, having made public his position, refrained from further participation. Politically speaking, he maintained a splendid isolation at the head of the armies.

Through January and February the Virginia crisis continued undetermined. In this period of fateful hesitation, the "mountains of prejudice" proved too great to be undermined even by the influence of Lee. When at last Virginia enacted a law permitting the arming of her slaves, no provision was made for their manumission.

Long before the passage of this act in Virginia, Congress had become the center of the controversy. Davis had come to the point where no tradition however cherished would stand, in his mind, against the needs of the moment. To reinforce the army in great strength was now his supreme concern, and he saw but one way to do it. As a last resort he was prepared to embrace the bold plan which so many people still regarded with horror and which as late as the previous November he himself had opposed. He would arm the slaves. On February 10, 1865, bills providing for the arming of the slaves were introduced both in the House and in the Senate.

On this issue all the forces both of the Government and the opposition fought their concluding duel in which were involved all the other basal issues that had distracted the country since 1862. Naturally there was a bewildering criss-cross of political motives. There were men who, like Smith and Lee, would go along with the Government on emancipation, provided it was to be carried out by the free will of the States. There were others who preferred subjugation to the arming of the slaves; and among these there were clashings of motive. Then, too, there were those who were willing to arm the slaves but were resolved not to give them their freedom.

The debate brings to the front of the political stage the figure of R. M. T. Hunter. Hitherto his part has not been conspicuous either as Secretary of State or as Senator from Virginia. He now becomes, in the words of Davis, "a chief obstacle" to the passage of the Senate bill which would have authorized a levy of negro troops and provided for their manumission by the War Department with the consent of the State in which they should be at the time of the proposed manumission. After long discussion, this bill was indefinitely postponed. Meanwhile a very different bill had dragged through the House. While it was under debate, another appeal was made to Lee. Barksdale, who came as near as any one to being the leader of the Administration, sought Lee’s aid. Again the General urged the enrollment of negro soldiers and their eventual manumission, but added this immensely significant proviso:

"I have no doubt that if Congress would authorize their [the negroes’] reception into service, and empower the President to call upon individuals or States for such as they are willing to contribute, with the condition of emancipation to all enrolled, a sufficient number would be forthcoming to enable us to try the experiment [of determining whether the slaves would make good soldiers]. If it proved successful, most of the objections to the measure would disappear, and if individuals still remained unwilling to send their negroes to the army, the force of public opinion in the States would soon bring about such legislation as would remove all obstacles. I think the matter should be left, as far as possible, to the people and to the States, which alone can legislate as the necessities of this particular service may require."

The fact that Congress had before it this advice from Lee explains why all factions accepted a compromise bill, passed on the 9th of March, approved by the President on the 13th of March, and issued to the country in a general order on the 23d of March. It empowered the President to "ask for and accept from the owners of slaves" the service of such number of negroes as he saw fit, and if sufficient number were not offered to "call on each State ...for her quota of 300,000 be raised from such classes of the population, irrespective of color, in each State as the proper authorities thereof may determine." However, "nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside and in pursuance of the laws thereof."

The results of this act were negligible. Its failure to offer the slave-soldier his freedom was at once seized upon by critics as evidence of the futility of the course of the Administration. The sneer went round that the negro was to be made to fight for his own captivity. Pollard—whose words, however, must be taken with a grain of salt—has left this account of recruiting under the new act: "Two companies of blacks, organized from some negro vagabonds in Richmond, were allowed to give balls at the Libby Prison and were exhibited in fine fresh uniforms on Capitol Square as decoys to obtain recruits. But the mass of their colored brethren looked on the parade with unenvious eyes, and little boys exhibited the early prejudices of race by pelting the fine uniforms with mud."

Nevertheless both Davis and Lee busied themselves in the endeavor to raise black troops. Governor Smith cooperated with them. And in the mind of the President there was no abandonment of the program of emancipation, which was now his cardinal policy. Soon after the passage of the act, he wrote to Smith: "I am happy to receive your assurance of success [in raising black troops], as well as your promise to seek legislation to secure unmistakable freedom to the slave who shall enter the Army, with a right to return to his old home, when he shall have been honorably discharged from military service."

While this final controversy was being fought out in Congress, the enthusiasm for the Administration had again ebbed. Its recovery of prestige had run a brief course and was gone, and now in the midst of the discussion over the negro soldiers’ bills, the opposition once more attacked the Cabinet, with its old enemy, Benjamin, as the target. Resolutions were introduced into the Senate declaring that "the retirement of the Honorable Judah P. Benjamin from the State Department will be subservient of the public interests"; in the House resolutions were offered describing his public utterances as "derogatory to his position as a high public functionary of the Confederate Government, a reflection on the motives of Congress as a deliberative body, and an insult to public opinion."

So Congress wrangled and delayed while the wave of fire that was Sherman’s advance moved northward through the Carolinas. Columbia had gone up in smoke while the Senate debated day after day—fifteen in all—what to do with the compromise bill sent up to it from the House. It was during this period that a new complication appears to have been added to a situation which was already so hopelessly entangled, for this was the time when Governor Magrath made a proposal to Governor Vance for a league within the Confederacy, giving as his chief reason that Virginia’s interests were parting company with those of the lower South. The same doubt of the upper South appears at various times in the Mercury. And through all the tactics of the opposition runs the constant effort to discredit Davis. The Mercury scoffed at the agitation for negro soldiers as a mad attempt on the part of the Administration to remedy its "myriad previous blunders."

In these terrible days, the mind of Davis hardened. He became possessed by a lofty and intolerant confidence, an absolute conviction that, in spite of all appearances, he was on the threshold of success. We may safely ascribe to him in these days that illusory state of mind which has characterized some of the greatest of men in their over-strained, concluding periods. His extraordinary promises in his later messages, a series of vain prophecies beginning with his speech at the African Church, remind one of Napoleon after Leipzig refusing the Rhine as a boundary. His nerves, too, were all but at the breaking point. He sent the Senate a scolding message because of its delay in passing the Negro Soldiers’ Bill. The Senate answered in a report that was sharply critical of his own course. Shortly afterward Congress adjourned refusing his request for another suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Davis had hinted at important matters he hoped soon to be able to submit to Congress. What he had in mind was the last, the boldest, stroke of this period of desperation. The policy of emancipation he and Benjamin had accepted without reserve. They had at last perceived, too late, the power of the anti-slavery movement in Europe. Though they had already failed to coerce England through cotton and had been played with and abandoned by Napoleon, they persisted in thinking that there was still a chance for a third chapter in their foreign affairs.

The agitation to arm the slaves, with the promise of freedom, had another motive besides the reinforcement of Lee’s army: it was intended to serve as a basis for negotiations with England and France. To that end D. J. Kenner was dispatched to Europe early in 1865. Passing through New York in disguise, he carried word of this revolutionary program to the Confederate commissioners abroad. A conference at Paris was held by Kenner, Mason, and Slidell. Mason, who had gone over to England to sound Palmerston with regard to this last Confederate hope, was received on the 14th of March. On the previous day, Davis had accepted temporary defeat, by signing the compromise bill which omitted emancipation. But as there was no cable operating at the time, Mason was not aware of this rebuff. In his own words, he "urged upon Lord P. that if the President was right in his impression that there was some latent, undisclosed obstacle on the part of Great Britain to recognition, it should be frankly stated, and we might, if in our power to do so, consent to remove it." Palmerston, though his manner was "conciliatory and kind," insisted that there was nothing "underlying" his previous statements, and that he could not, in view of the facts then existing, regard the Confederacy in the light of an independent power. Mason parted from him convinced that "the most ample concessions on our part in the matter referred to would have produced no change in the course determined on by the British Government with regard to recognition." In a subsequent interview with Lord Donoughmore, he was frankly told that the offer of emancipation had come too late.

The dispatch in which Mason reported the attitude of the British Government never reached the Confederate authorities. It was dated the 31st of March. Two days later Richmond was evacuated by the Confederate Government.


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Chicago: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, "Chapter XI. An Attempted Revolution," The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South Original Sources, accessed March 30, 2023,

MLA: Stephenson, Nathaniel Wright. "Chapter XI. An Attempted Revolution." The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, Original Sources. 30 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Stephenson, NW, 'Chapter XI. An Attempted Revolution' in The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South, ed. . cited in , The Day of the Confederacy; a Chronicle of the Embattled South. Original Sources, retrieved 30 March 2023, from