An Act to Increase the Military Force of the Confederate States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In March 1865 the Confederate Congress struggled with the administration of a faltering nation. Congress made adjustments to tax and financial policy, the organization of military commands, and how the government might extract scarce resources from a depleted countryside. On February 10, Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi rose to address the procurement of men for the army. He spoke in support of a bill designed to bring enslaved black men into the service. Barksdale laid out the bill’s provisions and carefully noted that any pay the slave soldier might earn could be paid to the master, should the master desire it, and that the bill should not be “construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners as property.” He added a jab at opponents, “are gentlemen unwilling to let the people have the privilege of contributing their slaves as a free-will offering to aid in repelling the savage foe?”

Congressman Williams Wickham of Virginia rose to oppose the bill. The veteran of many campaigns and battles with the Army of Northern Virginia, Wickham had a keen sense of sacrifices made for the cause. He declared, “the day that such a bill passes Congress sounds the death knell of this Confederacy,” and added “the very moment an order goes forth from the War Department authorizing the arming and organizing of negro soldiers there was an eternal end to this struggle.” Many of his compatriots grumbled in agreement.

Summary Overview

In March 1865 the Confederate Congress struggled with the administration of a faltering nation. Congress made adjustments to tax and financial policy, the organization of military commands, and how the government might extract scarce resources from a depleted countryside. On February 10, Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi rose to address the procurement of men for the army. He spoke in support of a bill designed to bring enslaved black men into the service. Barksdale laid out the bill’s provisions and carefully noted that any pay the slave soldier might earn could be paid to the master, should the master desire it, and that the bill should not be “construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners as property.” He added a jab at opponents, “are gentlemen unwilling to let the people have the privilege of contributing their slaves as a free-will offering to aid in repelling the savage foe?”

Congressman Williams Wickham of Virginia rose to oppose the bill. The veteran of many campaigns and battles with the Army of Northern Virginia, Wickham had a keen sense of sacrifices made for the cause. He declared, “the day that such a bill passes Congress sounds the death knell of this Confederacy,” and added “the very moment an order goes forth from the War Department authorizing the arming and organizing of negro soldiers there was an eternal end to this struggle.” Many of his compatriots grumbled in agreement.

Defining Moment

The February 1865 Hampton Roads Conference had been an utter failure for the Confederates. Many in the government knew that the only hope for Confederate independence lay not on a battlefield reversal but on a negotiated peace with the Union. The Confederate delegation met with Union representatives, including Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward aboard a steamboat in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 3. The Southerners expected to bargain for independence, but retained a hope that if peace included a return to the Union, that slavery could remain intact. Lincoln responded that only reunion–and reunion with the Emancipation Proclamation, and the pending 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, as settled facts–would be acceptable. To the Confederates Lincoln appeared intransigent, only willing to accept what they considered their utter humiliation and subjection. They made no deal. When the representatives returned to Richmond bearing the sobering news, all but the most disillusioned knew that their certain fate included military defeat, forcible return to the Union, the compulsory emancipation of all the slaves, and black people’s elevation to social and political equality. The desperate news shocked many into accepting the necessity of a drastic proposal.

Many advocates of enrolling slaves as soldiers had previously insisted that an offer of freedom to the black soldier and his family would ensure diligent and loyal service. Barksdale’s bill compromised on that conviction in order to mollify opponents who feared the general offer of emancipation for service would further undermine slavery. Only in the final version of the bill was language included that permitted states to conscript slaves if a sufficient number were not volunteered by their masters. Barksdale’s bill passed the House of Representatives on February 20 with a vote of forty in favor and thirty-seven against. Despite the representatives’ passage of the Barksdale bill, the endorsement of General Robert E. Lee, and the rapid change in public opinion toward favoring the use of black soldiers, the Confederate Senate decisively killed a version of the bill the following day.

At this impasse, the Virginia legislature stepped in. Politicians in Virginia, particularly Governor William Smith, had long advocated the use of black soldiers even if their Senators opposed any such proposal. On March 4, the legislature passed a resolution supporting the Barksdale bill, and instructed their Senators to vote in its favor. Reluctantly, Senators R.M.T. Hunter and Alan Caperton cast “yes” votes on a new Senate bill on March 8, bringing its supporters to nine against the eight of the opponents. The House of Representatives accepted the Senate version the following day and President Davis signed the bill into law on March 13.

Author Biography

The First Confederate Congress met in 1861 under an imprimatur of newness. The founding of a new nation had given the men collected in Montgomery, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia, a sense of starting over, despite the fact that the structure of government closely resembled that of the old United States. Chief among the novelties of 1861 was a rejection of political parties and partisanship. Many blamed partisan fighting for the poisonous state of antebellum politics that lead to disunion. In the new nation, then, Congressmen pledged to discard partisan interests in favor of unified efforts to achieve national independence and happiness. This hopeful tone did not last.

Though organized political parties did not develop, factions had emerged and political strife colored contests for national and state offices in 1863. The factions did not boast political agendas, but coalesced broadly around opposition to, or support of, the Jefferson Davis administration. Anti-administration politicians took the president to task for a variety of imperfectly implemented policies that accrued power to the central government. They decried unfair conscription laws and condemned overbearing impressment measures to supply the army. They spoke out against the suspension of habeas corpus and considered Jefferson Davis a stubborn tyrant too wedded to war and political independence to take advantage of overtures of peace from the Northern states. Pro-administration men defended Davis’ policies, and insisted that the exegesis of war demanded sacrifice and cooperation. Ironically, for a nation state dedicated to the conservative principles of limited federal power and sacredness of property rights, the Davis administration and its supporters proved adept at devising new ways to exercise central authority in the Confederacy.

Ethelbert Barksdale was a pro-administration man who one observer labeled “the leader of the Administration party in the House.” The Mississippian had learned his political skills at a young age when he became an editor of the Yazoo City Democrat and later as editor of newspapers in the state capital, Jackson. While Barksdale entered elected office as a delegate to the Democratic national convention in Charleston and representative of Mississippi in the First Confederate Congress, his brother William became a renowned general, commanding a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia and being killed in action at Gettysburg. The Congressman supported administration efforts to strengthen conscription and increase taxes, standing regularly to argue their necessity on the House floor. The idea introduced by Congressman Barksdale in March 1865 had many progenitors, from General Patrick Cleburne to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin and Jefferson Davis himself. Indeed, Barksdale had first opposed the idea. But after Jefferson Davis made the policy his own the previous November, Barksdale came around, and wrote the actual legislation and managed it through the deliberation process.

Document Analysis

The preamble states the law’s purpose–to authorize the president to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men…to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.” In President Davis’ November 7 address to Congress that tentatively asked for the use of blacks by the military, he suggested 40,000 men employed in engineering and pioneering positions. The Barksdale bill permitted the president to use slaves however he wished, but was specific in declaring what everyone knew–the enrolled slaves were to be used as soldiers in the line. Section two directed the General-in-Chief (General Lee) to organize the enrollees into “companies, battalions, regiments and brigades,” the military formations of front line infantry units. The black recruits, further, were to receive the same allowance for clothing, rations, and pay that white soldiers received.

Section four of the law revealed that the bill’s authors had little faith in the willingness of slave owners to give over their property. Should the president “not be able to raise a sufficient number of troops,” he was authorized to “call on each State…for her quota of 300,000 troops.” In short, if owners would not volunteer their slaves, the law granted the states power to conscript them, so long as that conscription did not take in “more than twenty-five per cent of the male slaves…in any State.” This last provision meant to ensure that a sufficient number of slaves remained in the fields to produce foodstuffs for the Confederacy.

The critical Section five of the law showed nods to conservative sentiment. Whereas Davis, Lee, and the bill’s many advocates had endorsed emancipation as a necessary feature of the plan to bring black men into the Confederate army, Barksdale did not go so far. “Nothing in this act,” his bill stated, “shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners.” Thus, the onus for motivating slaves into the army shifted from the desire of the slave himself for freedom, to the master, who may, or may not, consent to the freedom of slaves the master volunteered to the army. In all the ways the war had compelled Confederates to adapt to changes in slavery, and even consider its end, the notion that the most sacred relationship in slavery was the power of a white man over a black man, could not be touched.

Essential Themes

The law’s advocates had insisted that any black man who volunteered his service should receive his freedom in return. The problem in this stipulation was that it inserted the state–by the granting of emancipation–between a master and his slave. This sacred bond between a master and his slave was the most essential relationship in the Confederate mind. The Barksdale bill overcame this contradiction by granting the master himself (not the government) the right to free an enrolled slave, or not, before service. The bill did contain a provision that the state might intervene and conscript slaves should owners not be sufficiently forthcoming, but the administration refused to avail itself of that power. The military order implementing the law–General Order Number 14–deemed that the army would only accept slaves voluntarily freed by their masters. Few masters were willing to free their slaves to fight for Southern independence, seemingly proving the point that the Confederacy’s only cause was that of maintaining slavery.

To implement the new law, authorities turned to officers in General Richard Ewell’s Department of Richmond. Many enlisted men in the Army of Northern Virginia offered their services as officers of new black regiments, but General James Longstreet suspected the applicants were instead motivated by a desire for promotion and some time away from the Petersburg trenches. Ewell selected a few officers and men to recruit black soldiers in central Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. The recruiters faced a difficult task. They first had to convince a slave owner to give up his property. At the same time, the recruiter had to convince an enslaved black man that his personal degradation as a slave was a thing of the past, even if all knew that Confederates never intended to abandon the subordinate place of blacks in Southern society. To reinforce the alleged good will of whites, plan advocates and their allies announced that old habits must die–that whites in general should be ready to afford a black man the honor and respect as an equal that had always been summarily rejected. General Order Number 14 reinforced this tone by ordering “harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden.”

Rumors abounded of generous and willing masters across the South who stood poised to offer their slaves for service. Reality, however, failed to sustain these expectations. In Richmond, authorities accepted black recruits from among the employees at several military hospitals. They numbered not more than sixty, and were assigned to a local defense battalion consisting of convalescent soldiers from those hospitals. At a recruiting station in downtown Richmond, Major Thomas Turner took in between thirty and forty black men and began organizing them into a company. A few of those recruits came from Richmond’s free black population. One bemused newspaper reporter, witnessing a drill by the new company, noted how one of them executed a brilliant “military movement” and fled camp, never to return. Efforts elsewhere in the South could not even boast the meager numbers that recruiters in Richmond had raised. No other recruiting station reported raising a single man for the service. The reality of black men’s mistrust of Confederate authority and their longing for uncompromised freedom, along with the recalcitrance of slave owners unwilling to turn over their bondsmen, made a farce of administration hopes.

But that is not to say that the effort to arm blacks in the waning days of the war did not bear tangible fruits. Historian Bruce Levine contends that the proposals to arm slaves represented the evolutionary thinking of slave owners in the face of changes to the system forced from the outside. To arm slaves, offer them freedom, and even consent to universal emancipation were not efforts simply to grant freedom or achieve racial enlightenment. Those efforts, in fact, were the attempt by whites to maintain dominance over blacks in a turbulent and uncertain moment. In all the discussions that allowed for freedom for black people, white Southerners never once considered the potential for blacks as equal citizens or equal social actors. In the language proposals, freed blacks would still be bound by labor contracts and under the oversight of masterful whites and without access to government. Freedom, in the hands of Southern whites, would still contain many restrictions.

Though the plans to arm slaves for the army did not produce results, the reality of freedom with restrictions came about within the year in Southern state governments during Reconstruction. Historian Bruce Levine has called the efforts at Confederate emancipation “no mere isolated oddity or anomaly; it formed, instead, a phase of that longer struggle” between white proprietors and black laborers. The war had altered the terrain–no longer could whites use the force of law to control the lives and labors of black people, but they expected to still maintain a dominant position. In Black Codes written by Southern legislators across the former Confederacy, freed peoples’s ability to make contracts, gather together, live in abodes of their choice, carry firearms, or participate in politics were severely restricted. Whites had enacted much of what they expected to accomplish with their plans for emancipation.

In the continuing war of words after the military conflict had ended, many former Confederates pointed to the emancipation effort as proof that the war had never been about slavery, or that slavery itself had never been particularly objectionable. They reasoned that the emancipation efforts demonstrated whites’ implicit trust in giving arms to enslaved people, and that blacks demonstrated unabashed loyalty to the Confederacy in their willingness to wield those arms. How then, could slavery have been as central or as evil as their Northern conquerors claimed? That both of these assertions could not be substantiated by facts overlooks the reality that Confederates in late 1864 and 1865 knew and demonstrated otherwise. They could see that blacks who had shaken off their shackles flooded to the Union army, not to their own Southern homes. And observers could not deny that Southern slave owners dutifully sent their own sons to serve in the army, but could not part with their slaves for any price.

Bibliography
  • Levine, Bruce. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  • Yeams, Wilfred Buck. The Confederate Congress. Athens: U of Georgia P, reprint edition, 2010. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: HarperCollins, 1988. Print.
  • Manning, Chandra. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 2007. Print.
  • McCurry, Stephanie. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.
  • Power, J. Tracy. Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998. Print.
  • Rable, George R. The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994. Print.
Categories: History Content