DAVIS, Jefferson (1808-1889). President, Confederate States of America. Letter signed ("Jefferson Davis") as President of the Confederacy, to the Governor of Virginia, William "Extra Billy" Smith, Richmond, 30 March 1865. 1 2/3 pages, 4to (8 x 10 in.), integral blank docketed on the verso, leaves nearly separated, repairs to horizontal folds, otherwise fine.
THE RECRUITMENT OF BLACK SOLDIERS FOR THE CONFEDERACY: "WE ARE REDUCED...TO CHOOSING WHETHER THE NEGROES SHALL FIGHT FOR OR AGAINST US"
A historically significant letter in which Davis prepares the desperate measure of enlisting slaves into the armies of the Confederacy. Having entered the Civil War with a serious handicap of manpower, it was only a matter of time before the Confederacy experienced a severe shortage of troops. By early 1864, the problem became a crisis: "The bottom of the manpower barrel was not only in sight; it had been scraped practically clean to provide the army with every available male within the conscription age-range of eighteen to forty-five" (Foote, The Civil War, vol. 3, p. 953). As Confederate commanders faced the prospect that they would be unable to replace battlefield losses, an admired Irish general, Patrick Cleburne (1828-1864), suggested a solution to their dilemma. In 1862, the North had begun to recruit from a vast untapped source; the free Black population. African American Union regiments appeared on the battlefield in 1863 and, by 1864, played a major role in the northern war effort. Cleburne suggested that they follow the North's example by emancipating slaves and then recruiting them into the army. His argument was based upon a pragmatic principle: if the Confederacy did not find more men it would lose the war, in which case, slavery was doomed anyway. Cleburne passionately defended his idea: "[it] would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property. The very magnitude of the sacrifice...would appall our enemies" (Foote, p. 954).
Cleburne's proposal met with vehement opposition from his comrades who had gone to war based on inviolable racial assumptions. Most agreed with the thoughts of one Confederate officer who wrote that it was a "monstrous proposition...revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor" (Ibid). Yet, by the first months of 1865, the recruitment of black soldiers for the Confederate Army, an idea so unpalatable a year earlier, became increasingly attractive. The number of active soldiers began to dimish rapidly as a direct result of Grant and Sherman's strategy of attrition. In February of 1865, President Davis proposed arming some slaves: "We are reduced...to choosing whether the Negroes shall fight for or against us." The remaining opposition to the measure was somewhat silenced by Robert E. Lee, whose army clung desperately to the trenches around Petersburg, who wrote that it was "not only expedient but necessary" (McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 834-836).
Here, just three days before the Confederate lines were broken at Petersburg and eleven days before Appomattox, Davis discusses the logistics of recruitment with Governor William Smith of Virginia. Noting that he has spoken with the Secretary of War and Adjutant General about "the published order for the organization of Negro troops," Davis writes: "It was now my intention to collect the Negroes in depots for purposes of instruction but only as the best mode of forwarding them either as individuals or as companies to the command with which they were to serve. The officers at the different posts will aid in providing for the Negroes in their respective neighborhoods and in forwarding them to depots when transportation will be available to aid them in reaching the fields of service for which they are destined. The aid of Gentlemen who are willing, and able to raise the character of troops will be freely accepted." In an important acknowledgement of possible racial sentiments of his officers, Davis counsels: "the appointment of commanders for reasons obvious to you must depend on other considerations than the new power to recruit." Davis stresses an important condition of recruitment that had been challenged by some opponents: "I am happy to receive your assurance of success as well as your promise to seek legislation to secure unmistakably 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 the military service." Davis concludes that the emphasis should be placed upon volunteers: "I remain of the opinion that we should confine our first efforts to getting volunteers and would prefer that you would adopt such measures as would advance that mode of recruiting. Rather that concerning which you make enquiry to wit: by issuing a requisition for the slaves as authorized by the statutes of Virginia."
Last-ditch Confederate efforts to recruit Black soldiers came too late to have any impact on the battlefield. The Black regiments that fought for the North, however, played a critical role in the Union victory.
Provenance: Paul C. Richards, 1980.