The Confederacy considers using blacks as soldiers

As Union victories piled up during 1864 and early 1865, a small number of Southern lawmakers and community leaders suggested adding slaves to the Confederate Army. At first, whites across the Confederacy voiced strong objections to the idea of fighting side-by-side with blacks. Much of this resistance came from deep-seated racism. These bigoted critics argued that slaves did not have the intelligence or discipline to be good soldiers, and they declared that they would be deeply offended if blacks were asked to help defend the Confederacy.

Other Southerners objected to the idea of enlisting slaves for more practical reasons. They noted that few slaves would willingly join the Confederate Army unless they were promised their freedom. They warned that the South's slave-based economy might be permanently damaged if large numbers of slaves were freed. Still other critics worried that if the South voluntarily armed blacks, the slaves might revolt against their owners. More than anything else, though, white opposition to the idea of adding blacks to the Confederate Army stemmed from the belief that fighting with blacks would spoil the nobility of the Southern cause. "Many Southerners apparently preferred to lose the war than to win it with the help of black men," observed James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom.

By February 1865, however, important Confederate leaders like President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) and General Lee announced their support for the use of black troops. "The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers," wrote Lee on February 18. "I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy." The general added that blacks who fought under the Confederate flag should be given their freedom after the war. "It would be neither just nor wise . . . to require them to serve as slaves [after the war]," he said.

In mid-March, Confederate lawmakers passed several preliminary bills designed to legalize the use of African Americans as Confederate soldiers. The Virginia legislature even passed a state law calling for the enlistment of black soldiers. Virginia managed to organize two companies of black soldiers to fight on behalf of the South within a few weeks of passing the law. But as it turned out, the war ended before they or any other black Confederate soldiers could take the field of battle.

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