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Racism Defined: The Confederate Debate About Emancipation and Black Soldiers

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few days I have been dealing with emancipation and the United States Military during the American Civil War. However, as the Union began to emancipate and recruit African Americans for service, aided and encouraged by men like Frederick Douglass, a few bold souls in the Confederacy began to consider the wisdom of retaining the institution of slavery and proposing emancipation. Their efforts were in vain. The ugly reality of racism kept the leaders of the Confederacy from making the move for months, and only a limited emancipation was approved to recruit slaves as soldiers barely two weeks before Richmond fell to the Union.

I hope that you enjoy this.

Peace

Padre Steve+

slaves-picking-planting-cotton

In the South where before the war about forty percent of the population was composed of African American slaves there was no question regarding abolition or enlistment of African American soldiers. The Confederate States of America was a pro-slavery nation which hoped to “turn back the tide of abolition that had swept the hemisphere in the Age of Revolution…. Confederate founders proposed instead to perfect the slaveholder’s republic and offer it to the world as the political form best suited to the modern age.” [1]

The political and racial ideology of the South, which ranged from benevolent paternal views of Africans as less equal to whites, moderate prejudice and at tolerance of the need for slavery, and extreme slavery proponents who wanted to expand the institution beyond the borders of the Confederacy, as well as extreme prejudice and race race-hatred; was such that almost until the end of the war, Confederate politicians and many senior Confederate officers fought against any allowance for blacks to serve; for they knew if they allowed this, that slavery itself must be swept away. As such, it was not until 1864 when the Confederacy was beginning to face the reality that they could no longer win the war militarily, that any serious discussion of the subject commenced.

But after the fall of Vicksburg and the shattering defeat at Gettysburg, some Southern newspapers in Mississippi and Alabama began to broach the subject of employing slaves as soldiers, understanding the reality that doing so might lead to emancipation, something that they loathed but understood the military and political reality for both if the Confederacy was to gain its independence from the Union. The editor of the Jackson Mississippian wrote that, “such a step would revolutionize our whole industrial system” and perhaps lead to universal emancipation, “a dire calamity to both the negro and the white race.” But if we lose slavery anyway, for Yankee success is death to the institution… so that it is a question of necessity – a question of choice of evils. … We must… save ourselves form the rapacious north, WHATEVER THE COST.” [2]

The editor of the Montgomery Daily Mail “worried about the implications of arming slaves for “our historical position on the slavery question,” as he delicately put it. The argument which goes to the exclusion of negroes as soldiers is founded on the status of the negro.” Negroes, he asserted, are “racially inferior[s],” but “the proposition to make the soldiers… [would be but a] practical equalization of the races.” Nonetheless they had to do it. “The War has made great changes,” he insisted, and, “we must meet those changes for the sake of preserving our existence. They should use any means to defeat the enemy, and “one of those, and the only one which will checkmate him, is the employment of negroes in the military services of the Confederacy.” [3]  Other newspapermen noted “We are forced by the necessity of our condition,” they declared, “to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war.” The enemy was “stealing our slaves and converting them into soldiers…. It is better for us to use the negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us.” [4] These were radical words, but neither Jefferson Davis, nor the Confederate Congress was willing to hear them, and the topic remained off the table as a matter of discussion.

Despite this, there were a few Confederate military leaders who understood that the South could either fight for freedom and independence from the Union, but not for slavery at the same time, especially if the Confederacy refused to mobilize its whole arms-bearing population to defeat the Union. The reality that the “necessity of engaging slaves’ politics was starting to be faced where it mattered most: in the military.” [5] One of these men was General Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant and a division commander in the Army of Tennessee who demonstrated the capacity for forward thinking in terms of race, and political objectives far in advance of the vast majority of Confederate leaders and citizens.

Cleburne argued the contradictory nature of the Confederate policy, claiming to fight for liberty while subjugating African Americans as slaves. He understood that the policy has flawed on several counts, including military and diplomatic necessity. He told his staff, “It is said [that] slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for…. We have now briefly proposed a plan which we believe will save our country. It may be imperfect, but in all probability it would give us our independence,” [6] and he openly advocated that blacks should be allowed to serve as soldiers of the Confederacy, and that they should be emancipated and “Thirteen brigadier generals and other officers in his division signed the paper. But officers in other units condemned the “monstrous proposition” as “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern prides, and Southern honor.” [7]

Cleburne, who was known as “the Stonewall Jackson of the West” was a bold fighter who put together a comprehensive plan to reverse the course of the war by emancipating slaves and enlisting them to serve in the Confederate military. Cleburne was a lawyer and not a slave owner, and he honestly believed that slavery was incidental to the conflict and that “if southerners had to choose between securing their own freedom and maintaining the system of slavery, he had no doubt that his friends and neighbors, indeed the entire South, would willingly let slavery expire in order to ensure their own political independence.” [8] In a short amount of time he would discover just how wrong that he was in his assessment of his fellow southerners.

The Irish Confederate’s proposal was based on sound logic. Cleburne noted that the Confederacy was losing the war because it did not have enough soldiers, supplies, or resources to sustain the war effort. He stressed that the South had an inadequate number of soldiers, and that “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.” [9]

Most significantly the Irishman argued that “slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the beginning of the war, has now become in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness,” [10] and that “All along the lines… 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.” [11] He noted, that “Every soldier in our army already knows and feels our numerical inferiority to the enemy…. If this state continues much longer we shall surely be subjugated.” [12]

Cleburne was the ultimate realist in terms of what was going on in the Confederacy and the drain that slavery and the attempts to control the slave population were having on it. The Conscription Act of 1862 acknowledged that men had to be retained at home in order to guard against slave uprisings, and how exemptions diminished forces at the front without adding any corresponding economic value. Cleburne wrote of how African Americans in the South were becoming increasingly pro-Union, and were undermining Southern morale at home and in the ranks. He noted that they brought up “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 waiting with open arms.” There was no point in denigrating their military record, either. After donning Union blue, black men had proved able “to face and fight bravely against their former masters.” [13]

Cleburne’s proposal was radical for he recommended that “we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain to the confederacy in this war.” [14] Cleburne’s realism came through in his appeal to the high command:

“Ever since the agitation of the subject of slavery commenced the negro has been dreaming of freedom and his vivid imagination has surrounded the condition with so many gratifications that it has become the paradise of his hopes.” It was also shrewd politically: “The measure we propose,” he added, “will strike dead all John Brown fanaticism, and will compel the enemy to draw off altogether or in the eyes of the world to swallow the Declaration of Independence without the sauce and disguise of philanthropy.” [15]

The Irishman’s “logic was military, the goal more men in uniform, but the political vision was radical indeed.” [16] He was asking more from his fellow Southerners than most were willing to risk, and even more than Lincoln had asked of the North in his Emancipation Proclamation. Cleburne was “asking them to surrender the cornerstone of white racism to preserve their nation” [17] something that most seemed even unwilling to consider. He presented his arguments in stark terms that few Southern leaders, or citizens could stomach “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we can assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter- give up the Negro slave rather than be a slave himself.” [18] Cleburne’s words were those of a heretic, he noted “When we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question…and thus enlist their sympathies also.” [19] But Cleburne’s appeal was misguided, far too many Confederate many Southerners believed “the loss of slavery as virtually synonymous with the loss of his own liberty.” [20] It was considered treasonous, and even blasphemous, as slavery was considered by many Southerners to be mandated and blessed by God, and confirmed in the Bible. General William B. Bate who was present at the meeting where Cleburne proposed the idea, proclaimed that what it contained would “contravene principles upon which I have heretofore acted” and that it proposed “to discard our received theory of government [and] destroy our legal institutions and social relations.” [21] Another officer present wrote to a friend that it was a “monstrous proposition… revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” [22]

Cleburne’s proposal came to an end in January 1864 when General W.H.T Walker obtained a copy of Cleburne’s proposal and sent it to Jefferson Davis bypassing the chain of command and General Joseph Johnston’s specific order not to forward it to anyone. Walker opposed Cleburne’s proposal and expressed his outrage over it, and he requested that Davis crack down on “the agitation of such sentiments and propositions,” which “would ruin the efficiency of our Army and involve our cause in ruin and disgrace.” [23] Cleburne’s proposal had crossed over from being a military matter to an explosive political matter, and in Walker’s opinion, the political arguments were out of line for any military officer to state in public.

Jefferson Davis actually realized that slavery was doomed already no matter who won the war. However, the Confederate President realized that it was “was a potential bombshell for his administration.” [24] He was already under pressure from numerous officials for his war policies, including conscription, taxation, economic policies and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, by men like his Vice President Alexander Stephens and, Robert Toombs and Georgia Governor Joseph Brown. Toombs called the President “a false and hypocritical… wretch” who had “neither the ability not the honesty to manage the revolution” [25] while Stephens called Davis’s policies dictatorial, and unconstitutional, and that it was “Davis’s wartime policies that undercut traditional southern values.” [26]

Davis realized that the proposal could not be supported. He ordered Secretary of War Seddon to quash the measure and keep it from public knowledge. Seddon instructed Johnston to ensure “the suppression, not only of the memorial itself, but likewise all discussion and controversy respecting or growing out of it.” [27] Davis and Seddon were “Convinced that the “propagation of such opinions” would cause “discouragements, distraction, and dissension” in the army,” Seddon sought to remove any semblance of criticism from Cleburne, by adding “no doubt or mistrust is for a moment entertained of the patriotic intents of the gallant author of the memorial, but he also noted that the issue was not one that was appropriate for military officers to consider.” [28]

CleburnePatrick

Major General Patrick Cleburne C.S.A.

While the matter seemed over, “The only consequence of Cleburne’s action seemed to be the denial of promotion to this ablest of the army’s division commanders, who was killed ten months later at the Battle of Franklin.” [29] In fact Cleburne was “passed over for command of an army corps and promotion to lieutenant general” three times in the next eight months, and in “each care less distinguished, less controversial men received the honors.” [30] The chief instigator of this appears to have been General Braxton Bragg, who had been appointed as Davis’s military advisor who knew about it while serving in Tennessee. Bragg was a foe of a number of the officers involved in the discussion and wrote that Cleburne and the others, were “agitators, and should be watched.” To ensure that his point was unmistakable, he added ominously, “We must mark these men.” [31]

All copies of Cleburne’s proposal were destroyed by the Joseph Johnston on the order of Davis. He told Johnston, “If it be kept out of the public journals… its ill effects will be much lessened.” [32] Sadly, the “type of radical thinking Cleburne offered would not be seen again.” [33] The cover up initiated by Davis was quite successful, and it would have been lost to history had not a member of Cleburne’s staff discovered a copy in 1890 during the publication of the official war records.

Cleburne was not the only military man to advocate the formation of Negro units or even emancipation. Richard Ewell suggested to Jefferson Davis the idea of arming the slaves and offering them emancipation as early as 1861, and Ewell went as far as “volunteering to “command a brigade of Negroes.” [34] During the war Robert E. Lee became one of the chief proponents of this. Lee said after the war that he had told Davis “often and early in the war that the slaves should be emancipated, that it was the only way to remove a weakness at home and to get sympathy abroad, and divide our enemies, but Davis would not hear of it.” [35]

Ten months later with the Confederacy collapsing and Lincoln having won reelection, Davis raised the issue of arming slaves, as he now, quite belatedly, believed that military necessity left him little choice. “In mid-September Davis acknowledged that two-thirds of the army was absent, most without leave,[36] and the Confederate manpower crisis was deepening every day, and Davis now reluctantly admitted that in order to survive that the Confederacy had to tap the vast manpower pool represented by African Americans, even if that meant emancipation.

On November 7th 1864 Davis made his views known to the Confederate Congress, and they were a radical departure from the hitherto political orthodoxy of slavery. Davis had finally come to the realization the institution of slavery was now useless to the Confederate cause, as he had become a more ardent Confederate nationalist, and to Davis, “Preserving slavery had become secondary to preserving his new nation,” [37] and his words shocked the assembled Congress. The slave, he boldly declared that “the slave… can no longer be “viewed as mere property” but must be recognized instead in his other “relation to the state – that of a person.” As property, Davis explained, slaves were useless to the state, because without the “loyalty” of the men could be gained from their labor.” [38]

In light of the manpower needs of the South as well as the inability to achieve foreign recognition Davis asked their “consideration…of a radical modification in the theory of law” of slavery…” and he noted that the Confederacy “might have to hold out “his emancipation …as a reward for faithful service.” [39]

This drew the opposition of previously faithful supporters and in the press, especially that of North Carolina with some individuals as well and publications appearing that they would rather lose the war that win it with the help of African American men. Accepting blacks as soldiers meant equality and equality meant emancipation.

Some newspapers in North Carolina attacked Davis and his proposal, as “farcical” – “all this done for the preservation and perpetuation of slavery,” and if “sober men… are ready to enquire if the South is willing to abolish slavery as a condition of carrying on the war, why may it not be done as a condition of ending the war?” [40] Likewise, Davis now found himself opposed by some of his closest political allies including Robert Toombs and Howell Cobb.  Toombs roared, “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” [41] Likewise, Cobb warned “The day that you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” [42] Some in the military echoed his sentiments, Brigadier General Clement H. Stevens of South Carolina declared “I do not want independence if it is to be won by the help of the Negro.” [43] A North Carolina private wrote, “I did not volunteer to fight for a free negroes country…. I do not think I love my country well enough to fight with black soldiers.” [44]

Robert E. Lee, who had emancipated his slaves before the war, began to be a formidable voice in the political debate going on in the Confederacy regarding the issue of blacks serving as soldiers and emancipation. In a letter to Andrew T. Hunter he argued,

“There have been formidable armies composed of men having no interest in the cause for which they fight beyond their pay or hope of plunder. But it is certain that the surest foundation upon the fidelity of an army can rest, especially in a service which imposes peculiar hardships and privations, is the personal interests of the soldier in the issue of the contest. Such an interest we can give our negroes by giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not,) together with the privilege of residing in the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service.” [45]

Lee wrote in the same letter, “we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced on our social institutions…” and he pointed out that “any act for the enrolling of slaves as soldiers must contain a “well digested plan of gradual and general emancipation”: the slaves could not be expected to fight well if their service was not rewarded with freedom.” [46] He wrote another sponsor of a Negro soldier bill “The measure was “not only expedient but necessary…. The negroes, under proper circumstances will make effective soldiers. I think we could do as well with them as the enemy…. Those employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise… to require them to serve as slaves.” [47]

Lee was not alone, others throughout the South, even slave owners wrote to Davis voicing their support. “A Georgia planter who had lost two sons in the war believed that the time had come to enlist black soldiers. “We should away with pride of opinion – away with false pride…. The enemy fights us with the negro – and they will do well to fight the Yankees…. We are reduced to the last resort.” [48]

But many reacted in horror to Lee’s proposal. When Howell Cobb heard of Lee’s support for black soldiers and emancipation he fired of a letter to Secretary of War Seddon, “I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has ever been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such policy.” [49] The wife of a prominent South Carolina planter “Slaveholders on principle, & those who hope one day to become slaveholders in time, will not tacitly allow their property & their hopes & allow a degraded race to be placed on a level with them.” [50]

The debate which had begun in earnest in the fall of 1864 revealed a sharp divide in the Confederacy between those who supported the measure and those against it. Cabinet members such as Judah Benjamin and a few governors “generally supported arming the slaves.” [51] The Southern proponents of limited emancipation were opposed by the powerful governors of Georgia and North Carolina, Joe Brown and Zebulon Vance, and by the President pro-tem of the Confederate Senate R.M.T. Hunter, who forcibly opposed the measure. Senator Louis Wigfall who had been Davis’s ally in the conscription debates, now became his opponent, he declared that he “wanted to live in no country in which the man who blacked his boots and curried his horse was his equal.” [52] Senator David Yulee of Florida told Davis, “This is a White Man’s government. To associate colors in camp is to unsettle castes; and when thereby the distinction of color and caste is so far obliterated that the relation of fellow soldier is accepted, the mixture of races and toleration of equality is commenced.” [53]

Much of the Southern press added its voice to the opposition. Newspapers in North Carolina declared the proposal “farcical” – “all this was done for the preservation and the perpetuation of slavery,” and if “sober men…are willing to enquire if the South is willing to abolish slavery as a condition of carrying on the war, why may it not be done, as a condition of ending the war?” [54] The Charleston Mercury considered the proposal apostasy and proclaimed “Assert the right in the Confederate government to emancipate slaves, and it is stone dead…” [55] In Lynchburg an editor noted, “If such a terrible calamity is to befall us… we infinitely prefer that Lincoln shall be the instrument pf our disaster and degradation, that we ourselves strike the cowardly and suicidal blow.” [56]

Some states in the Confederacy began to realize that slaves were needed in the ranks, but did not support emancipation. Led by Governor “Extra Billy” Smith, who had commanded a brigade at Gettysburg before being elected governor, Virginia’s General Assembly finally approved a law in 1865 “to permit the arming of slaves but included no provision for emancipation, either before or after military service.” [57]  Smith declared that without slavery the South “would no longer have a motive to fight.” [58] J.H. Stringfellow, an ardent slave supporter who had led the sack of Lawrence during the pro and anti-slavery wars in the Kansas Territory wrote to Davis in support of black soldiers. While Stringfellow supported using the as soldiers he did not mean that such would make them equal. Even so he wrote,

“We allege that slaves will not fight in our armies. Escaped slaves fight and fight bravely for our enemies; therefore a freed slave will fight. If at the beginning of this war all our negroes had been free does anyone believe that the Yankees would have been able to recruit an army amongst them? Does anyone know of a solitary free negro escaping to them and joining their army? If our slaves were now to be freed would the Yankees be able to raise another recruit amongst them? If freedom and amnesty were declared in favor of those already in the Yankee lines would they not almost to a man desert to their old homes? Would not our freed negroes make us as good of soldiers as they do for our enemies?” [59]

Unlike Stringfellow and supporters of freeing slaves and making them soldiers, many Confederate soldiers displayed the attitude that would later propel them into the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts, the White League and the White Liners after the war. A North Carolina soldier wrote, “I did not volunteer to fight for a free negroes country… I do not think I love my country well enough to fight with black soldiers.” [60]

But many agreed with Lee, including Silas Chandler of Virginia, who stated, “Gen Lee is in favor of it I shall cast my vote for it I am in favor of giving him any thing he wants in the way of gaining our independence.” [61] Finally in March of 1865 the Confederate Congress passed by one vote a watered down measure of the bill to allow for the recruitment of slaves. It stipulated that “the recruits must all be volunteers” [62] and those who volunteered must also have “the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freed man.” [63] While this in itself was a radical proposition for a nation which had went to war to maintain slavery, the fact was that the slave’s service and freedom were granted not by the government, but by his owner, and even at this stage of the war, few owners were willing to part with their property. It was understood by many that giving freedom to a few was a means of saving the “particular institution.” The Richmond Sentinel noted during the November debate:  “If the emancipation of a part is the means of saving the rest, this partial emancipation is eminently a pro-slavery measure.” [64] Thus the law made “no mention of emancipation as a reward of military service” [65] and in deference to “state’s rights, the bill did not mandate freedom for slave soldiers.” [66]

But diehards opposed even the watered down measure. Robert Kean, who headed the Bureau of War and should have understood the stark reality of the Confederacy’s strategic situation, note in his diary, that the law:

“was passed by a panic in the Congress and the Virginia Legislature, under all the pressure the President indirectly, and General Lee directly, could bring to bear. My own judgment of the whole thing is that it is a colossal blunder, a dislocation of the foundations of society from which no practical results will be reaped by us.” [67]

It was Lee’s prestige alone that allowed the measure to pass, but even that caused some to question Lee’s patriotism. The Richmond Examiner dared to express a doubt whether Lee was “a ‘good Southerner’: that is, whether he is thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of negro slavery.”  [68] Robert Toombs of Georgia stated that “the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves” [69] and a Mississippi congressman stated, “Victory itself would be robbed of its glory if shared with slaves.” [70]

But even if the final bill passed was inadequate, “and fell short of General Lee’s preferred plan of general gradual emancipation,” [71] the debate about it had finally forced Southerners “to realign their understanding of what they were protecting and to recognize the contradictions in their carefully honed rationalization. Some would still staunchly defend it; others would adopt the ostrich’s honored posture. But many understood only too well what they had already surrendered.” [72]

On March 23rd 1865 the War Office issued General Order Number 14, which authorized the call up and recruitment of slaves to the Confederate cause. The order read in part: “In order to provide additional forces to repel invasion…the President be, and he is hereby authorized to ask for and to accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service  in whatever capacity he may direct…” While the order authorized that black soldiers “receive the same rations, clothing and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of service,” it did not provide for the emancipation of any of the black soldiers that might volunteer. Instead it ended “That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear to their owners, except by the consent of the owners and of the States which they may reside….”  [73] Despite the fact that the measure failed to confer freedom on those who enlisted. He insisted that the army would “enroll no slaves, only freemen, by their own consent.” [74] Whatever anyone else thought, Jefferson Davis had finally come to realize that consent and emancipation were the only just and reasonable terms to enlist black soldiers. It was a watershed, the man who labored to build the perfect slave-republic had decided on emancipation.  In signing the order “Davis ordered the War Department to issue regulations that “ensured them the rights of a freedman. The president tried to jump-start the recruitment of black regiments. But the effort was too little and too late.” [75]

Twelve days after the approval of the act, on March 25th two companies of blacks were formed for drill in Richmond’s Capitol Square. Commanded by Majors J.W. Pegram and Thomas P. Turner, the newly recruited former slaves assembled to the sounds of fifes and drums and “proudly marched down the street for the first time in their Southern uniforms, whites lining the sidewalks threw mud at them.” [76] As they continued they were met with more derision and violence as even “Small boys jeered and threw rocks” [77] at them. It was fitting that none of those few volunteers saw action as the war drew to a close, and within a week the Confederate government had ignominiously fled from Richmond, leaving them and the capital at the mercy of the victorious Union army.

But some would see that history was moving, and attitudes were beginning to change. It took time, and the process is still ongoing. As imperfect as emancipation was and though discrimination and racism remained, African Americans had reached “levels that none had ever dreamed possible before the war.” [78] In April 1865 as Jefferson Davis and his government fled Richmond, with Davis proclaiming, “again and again we shall return, until the baffled and exhausted enemy shall abandon in despair his endless and impossible task of making slaves of a people resolved to be free.” [79]

The irony in Davis’s empty vow was stunning. Within a week Lee had surrendered and in a month Davis himself would be in a Federal prison. In the wake of his departure the Confederate Provost Marshall set fire to the arsenal and the magazines to keep them from falling into Union hands. However, the fires “roared out of hand and rioters and looters too to the streets until the last Federal soldiers, their bands savagely blaring “Dixie,” marched into the humiliated capital and raised the Stars and Stripes over the old Capitol building.” [80]

Davis had gone from a state of unreality to one of fantasy. He fled south with his cabinet hoping to regather troops and continue resistance even as Robert E. Lee was surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Davis reached Joseph Johnston’s tiny fragment of an army in North Carolina, but was rebuffed in his attempt to order the army to continue to fight by Johnston, General P.T.G. Beauregard, and the majority of his cabinet. Johnston told the hopelessly deluded Davis, “My views are, sir, that our people are tired of the war, feel themselves whipped and will not fight…. My men are daily deserting in large numbers. Since Lee’s defeat they regard the war as at an end.” [81] Johnston went through a litany of what the Confederacy lacked to continue the war, he added, “the effect of keeping our forces in the field would be, not to harm the enemy, but to complete the devastation of our country and the ruin of its people.” Further resistance would constitute “the greatest of human crimes.” [82]  Beauregard, an old foe who Davis had ignored and offended throughout the war concurred with Johnston.

A Confederate soldier noted, “Poor President…. He is unwilling to see what all around him see. He cannot bring himself to believe that after four years of glorious struggle we are to be crushed into submission.” [83] The cabinet was dissolved and Davis with a few embers of it and his wife Varina continued to flee but were caught by a Union cavalry patrol near Irwinville, Georgia on May 10th 1865.

The Federal troops who led the army into Richmond came from General Godfrey Weitzel’s Twenty-fifth Corps, of Ord’s Army of the James. The Every black regiment in the Army of the James was consolidated in Weitzel’s Corps, along with Ferrero’s former division that had suffered so badly at the Battle of the Crater. “Two years earlier in New Orleans, Weitzel had protested that he did not believe in colored troops and did not want to command them, and now he sat at the gates of Richmond in command of many thousands of them, and when the citadel fell he would lead them in and share with them the glory of occupying the Rebel capital.” [84] Among Weitzel’s units were regiments of black “cavalrymen and infantrymen. Many were former slaves; their presence showed their resolve to be free.” [85]

lincoln-in-richmond

On April 4th 1865 Abraham Lincoln entered Richmond to the cheers of the now former slaves who had remained in the city. For them the President’s appearance was like that of the Messiah. The historian of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry wrote,

“His reception in a city which, only a day or two before, had been the headquarters and centre of the Rebellion, was most  remarkable; and more resembled a triumphant return from, than an entry into the enemy’s capital. Instead of the streets being silent and vacated, they were filled with men, women, and children shouting and cheering wherever he went.

“I’d rather see him that Jesus,” excitedly exclaims one woman, as she runs ahead of the crowd to get a view of his benign countenance. “De kingdom’s come, and de Lord is wid us,” chants another. “Hallelujah!” shouts a third; and so on through a whole volume of prayers, praises, blessings, and benedictions showed down upon his, the great emancipator of a race, and the savior of his country, thus redeemed, as he walked slowly forward with smiling and uncovered head….” [86]

Likewise a journalist witnessing the event described the scene,

“The gathered around the President, ran ahead, hovered upon the flanks of the little company, and hung like a dark cloud upon the rear. Men, women, and children joined the consistently increasing throng. They came from the by-streets, running in breathless haste, shouting and hallooing and dancing with delight. The men threw up their hats, the women their bonnets and handkerchiefs, clapped their hands, and sang, Glory to God! Glory! Glory! Glory!” [87]

One old man rushed to Lincoln and shouted “Bless the Lord, the great Messiah! I knowed him as soon as I seed him. He’s been in my heart four long years, and he’s come at last to free his children from their bondage. Glory, hallelujah!” He then threw himself at the embarrassed President’s feet and Lincoln said, “Don’t kneel to me. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.” [88]

Emancipation had finally arrived in Richmond, and in the van came the men of the U.S. Colored Troops who had rallied to the Union cause and fought bravely, even against the prejudice of some to their own countrymen. They were followed by the man who had made the bold decision to emancipate them and then persevere against all opposition, even risking his presidency until that hope had become reality.

Notes 

[1] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.310

[2] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.832

[3] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.324

[4] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.831

[5] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.325

[6] Symonds, Craig L. Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 1997 pp.188-189

[7] McPherson, James M. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief The Penguin Press, New York 2014 Amazon Kindle Edition location 2376 of 3649

[8] Ibid. Symonds Stonewall of the West p.182

[9] Ibid. Levine The Fall of the House of Dixie p.167

[10] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[11] Ibid. Levine The Fall of the House of Dixie p.167

[12] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.326

[13] Ibid. Levine The Fall of the House of Dixie p.167

[14] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[15] Winik, Jay April 1865: The Month that Saved America Perennial an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers New York 2002 p.53

[16] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.327

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 370

[18] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[19] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.327

[20] Ibid. Symonds Stonewall of the West p.190

[21] Ibid. Levine The Fall of the House of Dixie p.168

[22] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.954

[23] Ibid. McPherson Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief location 2376 of 3649

[24] Ibid. Symonds Stonewall of the West p.194

[25] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.692-693

[26] Ibid. Symonds Stonewall of the West p.194

[27] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.954

[28] Ibid. Symonds Stonewall of the West p.194

[29] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.833

[30] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.262

[31] Ibid. Symonds Stonewall of the West p.195

[32] Ibid. McPherson Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief location 2389 of 3649

[33] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.329

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[35] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War p.47

[36] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.330

[37] Ibid. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis p.598

[38] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.335

[39] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.335

[40] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[41] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.835

[42] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[43] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.55

[44] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[45] Lee, Robert E. Letter to Hon. Andrew Hunter,  January 11, 1865 in Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. editors, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about “The Lost Cause” University of Mississippi Press, Jackson 2010 p.217

[46] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.643

[47] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.836

[48] Ibid. McPherson Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief 2403 of 3649

[49] Cobb, Howell Letter to James A. Seddon, Secretary of War, January 8, 1865 in the Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. Editors, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 2010 Amazon Kindle edition location 4221 of 8647     

[50] Edmondson, Catherine. Catherine Edmonston Reflects on the Situation in the Confederacy  in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2001 p.295

[51] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.293

[52] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.836

[53] Ibid. McPherson Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief  location 2419 of 3649

[54] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[55] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.337

[56] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.836

[57] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three pp.754-755

[58] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[59] Stringfellow, J.H. Letter to President Jefferson Davis, February 8, 1865 in Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. editors, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about “The Lost Cause” University of Mississippi Press, Jackson 2010 p.224

[60] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 370

[61] Ibid. Pryor Reading the Man p.396

[62] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p. 755

[63] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.296

[64] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.836

[65] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.755

[66] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.837

[67] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.860

[68] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.837

[69] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.860

[70] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.835

[71] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.345

[72] Ibid. Pryor Reading the Man p.397

[73] Confederate Congress General Orders, No. 14, An Act to Increase the Military Force of the Confederate States, Approved March 13, 1865 in the Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. Editors, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 2010 Amazon Kindle edition location4348 of 8647

[74] Ibid. McCurry Confederate Reckoning p.351

[75] Ibid. McPherson Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief  location 2441 of 3649

[76] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.35

[77] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.860

[78] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 386

[79] Levine, Bruce Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition, Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 1992 and 1995 p.241

[80] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 476

[81] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.968

[82] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 481

[83] Ibid. McPherson Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief  location2510 of 3649

[84] Ibid. Catton Grant Takes Command p.411

[85] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.241-242

[86] Bartlett, A.W. Richmond’s Black Residents Welcome Abraham Lincoln in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.302

[87] Ibid. Levine The Fall of the House of Dixie p.275

[88] Ibid. Foote. The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.897

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Human Beings as Property Part 3: American Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men. All forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison. We see this every day in our media. So here is

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Understanding the Issue, The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. Two of these men stand out. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called a proponent of Confederate nationalism, and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett because of his inability to work within any system that required compromise.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850 turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist. When he did so, “he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Likewise, as a young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

Ruffin was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was a type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to “secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not believe that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable, but he did believe that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first. [7]

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] He was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification, Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett would resign his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept a state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified. After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways, but The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] However, his inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders, and he grew increasingly isolated, becoming one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865 Rhett with Union armies having overrun South Carolina and at the gates of Richmond, Rhett was opposing any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slavery http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the South http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

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