General Lee on Black Confederate Soldiers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From the first year of the war, with General Robert E. Lee serving as Jefferson Davis’ military aid, until the last year, with Lee as General-in-Chief of Confederate armies, President Davis had always turned to the general as a confidant and as a source for sound and competent advice. By 1865, Lee served as more than the president’s closest advisor; he stood as the most widely trusted and admired man in the Confederacy. No other general or politician held the confidence of such a wide part of the population. Where Davis faced opposition and had to fight for every political gain, Lee’s gravitas could sway public opinion and official policy with a stroke of his pen.

Davis, in his November 7, 1864 address to the Second Confederate Congress had cautiously proposed an expanded role for enslaved blacks in the Confederate military. While he spoke only of employing blacks in more dangerous positions with pioneer and engineer troops, the power to do so that he requested implied blacks’ future right to consideration as regular soldiers in the service. While the Confederate’s prospects for victory in the war appeared increasingly distant and more people began to favor Davis’s position, the proposal still faced significant opposition in Congress and in the public mind. Therefore, when Davis and ever more strident proponents of arming slaves, like Secretary of State Judah B. Benjamin, found the proposal at a public impasse, they turned to Lee.

Summary Overview

From the first year of the war, with General Robert E. Lee serving as Jefferson Davis’ military aid, until the last year, with Lee as General-in-Chief of Confederate armies, President Davis had always turned to the general as a confidant and as a source for sound and competent advice. By 1865, Lee served as more than the president’s closest advisor; he stood as the most widely trusted and admired man in the Confederacy. No other general or politician held the confidence of such a wide part of the population. Where Davis faced opposition and had to fight for every political gain, Lee’s gravitas could sway public opinion and official policy with a stroke of his pen.

Davis, in his November 7, 1864 address to the Second Confederate Congress had cautiously proposed an expanded role for enslaved blacks in the Confederate military. While he spoke only of employing blacks in more dangerous positions with pioneer and engineer troops, the power to do so that he requested implied blacks’ future right to consideration as regular soldiers in the service. While the Confederate’s prospects for victory in the war appeared increasingly distant and more people began to favor Davis’s position, the proposal still faced significant opposition in Congress and in the public mind. Therefore, when Davis and ever more strident proponents of arming slaves, like Secretary of State Judah B. Benjamin, found the proposal at a public impasse, they turned to Lee.

Defining Moment

Davis’ equivocal November proposal met with widespread inaction outside of the small but growing coterie that advocated arming slaves. Even in that desperate moment, many clung to the hope that Southern armies would prevail, that the Lincoln administration would sue for a negotiated peace, or that even England and France would still intervene. But events over the next two months proved them wrong. Sherman’s march through Georgia had ended with the capture of Savannah in late December just after Phillip Sheridan’s Union forces crushed Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, while Union armies elsewhere continued to encroach on territory and drain blood and resources from Confederate armies. French diplomats effectively foreclosed the idea of any assistance in the same month. Finally, Confederate hopes were ruined by the results of the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865. At Hampton Roads, Confederate and Union military commissioners met to consider a negotiated end to the war. While Confederate emissaries hoped for independence, or at least a return to the Union with slavery intact, the Union representatives (including Lincoln himself) plainly stated that the South must return to the Union under the terms of the newly passed 13th Amendment that abolished slavery altogether. Anything short of that and Northern armies would continue marching. The dismayed and disappointed Confederates left Hampton Roads convinced that peace could not be had.

These events caused many Southerners to reconsider their stance on the idea of using slaves as soldiers. Georgia Congressman Warren Akin noted in December “a great change is going [on] in the public mind about putting negroes in the army.” Yet the resistance of stalwarts who did not wish to alter slavery still remained, particularly in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The advocates surrounding Davis looked to solicit a public opinion from General Lee, who they knew to be sympathetic to the idea. Lee did so in conversations and in two letters to Confederate politicians.

Author Biography

As a son of the most prominent of Virginia planter families, born in 1807, and married into the family of even more famous and wealthy Virginians, Lee grew up in a world built on the foundations of unfree labor. The young Lee attended West Point, graduated in 1829, and served in the United States army as an engineer officer. He gained national fame for valorous service in the Mexican War but only first commanded troops when appointed Lt. Colonel of the Second United States Cavalry regiment in 1855. At the Lee home, Arlington House, in northern Virginia, his wife’s family owned nearly 200 enslaved black people. There, the Lee family practiced what they imagined as an enlightened form of slaveholding. They saw to the spiritual welfare of their slaves; they permitted their black people to read and tend to their own gardens; and they granted them unusual lenience in leaving the Arlington estate to visit Washington City just over the Potomac. The Lees spoke frequently of their desire to keep married slave couples together with their children, even if they did not always hold to this precept. The Lee family slaveholding ethic disdained the outright violence and humanity inherent in the institution. Though the Lee family’s self-conception as benevolent and Christian masters may have led to some alleviation for their bondsmen, it was by no means a precursor to emancipation or racial equality. They imagined a day when the benevolent guidance of moral white people would make blacks ready for freedom. But that day remained a theoretical concept. Until then, the Lees continued to coerce black people, sell them away, and deny them privileges accorded to free people. Indeed, the ethic of slave owning that the Lee family practiced did not arise from a concern for black people as much as from their self-regard as Christians and self-protection from the charges of abolitionists who condemned slavery’s inherent violence. When Lee chose to resign his United States army commission and serve Virginia and the Confederacy, he did so to fight for and protect the larger system of values and assumptions about the races exemplified by how he practiced slavery.

In Confederate service, Lee spent the first year of war organizing Virginia’s defense and advising President Davis on the military condition of the South at large. Upon being appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, he delivered the Union army then pressing Richmond a series of heavy blows before marching north to threaten the United States capitol. Lee also commanded a failed effort by a small Confederate army to recapture Western Virginia and then organized Confederate coastal defenses along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The stunning victories Lee engineered in the summer of 1862, at the head of an audacious and high-spirited army of cavaliers and fighters, fixed his place in the public mind as the beau ideal of a soldier and the most revered man in the Confederacy. Even the disaster at Gettysburg could not shake the confidence the nation, or the President, had in him. When Judah P. Benjamin solicited Lee’s opinion regarding the potential use of black troops, he could expect a reasoned and tempered answer.

Document Analysis

Lee offered his position in two letters. The second letter, to influential Mississippi Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale, is considered here first, because it was released to the public, reprinted in newspapers across the South, and had the greatest public influence. Barksdale, after early opposition, had reconsidered his position on the slave-soldier plan and by 1865 he stood as one of the plan’s proponents in Congress. Prompted by a query from Barksdale, Lee wrote intending his letter to be quickly and widely published.

Lee’s letter to Barksdale is short and succinctly declares his support for the plan to emancipate and arm slaves. He declared up front, “I think the measure not only expedient but necessary.” He offered three points to back up his assertion. First, he noted that the Union army recruited black soldiers from the South, and the more territory they captured, the more recruits they could access. Lee admitted that while the existing population of white Southern men might be enough to repel the enemy in a single battle or campaign, he insisted that the present reserve of men could not sustain the South in any protracted contest. To enlist black soldiers would both withhold those recruits from Federal service and support the service of white men in Southern armies. Second, Lee contended that blacks would make fine soldiers, owing to what he considered their “habits of obedience.” This endorsement from the Confederacy’s premier military commander likely alleviated the fears of many Southerners who did not think a former slave had the moral capacity to make a good soldier. Finally, Lee offered his opinion on the process of recruitment. He insisted that for a black soldier to be effective, he must demonstrate his devotion to the cause of freedom by volunteering for service. A man coerced into service by his master, Lee thought, would not fight as hard.

In Lee’s letter to Barksdale the general crafted a forceful but palatable political message for public consumption. The issue of freeing slaves to fight for the South, however, touched upon greater and more fundamental concerns–those of the future of slavery in the white republic. Lee deliberately sidestepped this issue in his public letter. That he had considered the larger ramifications of black soldiers is clear from an earlier missive to Virginia state senator Andrew Hunter.

To Hunter, Lee had been candid. He explained his expectation for an ideal form of slavery. He valued slavery “controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment.” That vision is one that he and his family had attempted to implement at Arlington. That was the form of slavery he desired, and “I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation.” All things considered, then, Lee would have preferred to leave slavery as it was, or at least as he had imagined that he had practiced it. But he, as clearly as any other man in the Confederacy, knew that the war had irrevocably changed slavery. Two choices faced the Confederacy and its chief institution: to lose the war and have universal emancipation forced upon the South by a vindictive conqueror, or to get ahead of the changing institution and take a direct hand in how it changed. Thus, when Lee said that he would prefer to see slavery confirmed as it was “unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity,” he meant that the South should take charge to ensure that slavery changed on Southern white people’s terms, and not those of Southern blacks or Northern whites. “If it [the proposal] end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.”

Lee’s Virginia paternalism still expressed itself with his insistence that the best method of survival for blacks was in inferior positions to Southern whites. Offering limited emancipation to worthy blacks in the South was his solution. Only white Southerners could compose a “well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.” Even Lee’s paternalism could not shield him from the realization that tampering with the fundamental aspects of slavery would lead irresistibly to “general emancipation.”

Lee rehearsed the points he would unveil in his letter to Barksdale. The Union army threatened to recruit even more black Southerners. We should act to prevent that by bringing blacks into our own army. They will be good soldiers. And he insisted that if such a plan were to be considered and passed by Congress, it must be done immediately.

Essential Themes

When Judah P. Benjamin solicited General Lee’s opinion about the use of black soldiers, he also requested the views of the soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. This request set off a remarkable series of debates, meetings, and resolutions from corps commanders to enlisted men in the ranks. At the regimental and brigade levels, soldiers held meetings, elected committeemen, presented resolutions, and voted. For instance, the officers and men of General Joseph Davis’ Brigade of Mississippians elected Private W. C. McDougall of the 26th Mississippi as chairman of their meeting. Private William F. Price of the 11th Mississippi submitted resolutions that were discussed and adopted. The preamble to the resolutions declared “the enemy…has stolen our negroes and placed them in his armies.” It continued, “we, the soldiers of this brigade…believe the time has come when the war material of our country, regardless of color, should be fully developed.” They resolved that blacks should be inducted as soldiers, that Congress be comforted in knowing “that it will create no dissatisfaction in our ranks,” and that the legislature of Mississippi raise and equip a brigade of black soldiers immediately.

A slight majority of resolutions favored the use of black soldiers. Yet some did so with considerable hesitation. Soldiers of the 56th Virginia Infantry began their resolutions by affirming “that slavery is the normal condition of the negro” and that the right to hold slaves was granted by the constitution and laws. They further reminded readers of their commitment to slavery by noting “involuntary servitude is as indispensable to the moral and physical advancement, prosperity and happiness of the African race as is liberty to the whites.” After reiterating their paternalistic beliefs about the role of the race s in society, they grudgingly admitted “if the public exigencies require that any number of our male slaves be enlisted in the military service in order to the successful resistance to our enemies…we are willing to make concessions to their [the slaves’] false and unenlightened notions of the blessings of liberty, and to offer to those, and those only who fight in our cause, perpetual freedom.” These white soldiers witnessed enslaved people’s enthusiasm for freedom and considered it misinformed and dangerous. But they were willing to go along if that enthusiasm was tapped to defend the Confederacy. Still, they advocated conditional freedom and deplored universal emancipation.

Despite the support the question elicited, some commands remained divided on the use of black soldiers. Cavalrymen in the 3rd Virginia recorded contradictory resolutions. At first, they maintained that a vigorous application of the law would produce enough white troops to sustain the war effort. Further, “we contemplate with anxiety and apprehension the proposition to enlist negro troops in our armies, seriously doubting both its expedience and practicability, [and] dreading its effects upon our social system.” Like many opponents in the wider Confederacy, these troopers preferred to maintain the “social system” as it had been, even in the face of its certain destruction. But this resolution “elicited an animated and protracted discussion,” resulting in the adoption of a competing resolution, “we are in favor of putting every man in the country between the ages of 17 and 45 in the army, and as many negroes, without changing their social status, as the Commander-in-Chief may deem necessary.” They had succumbed to the reasoning of black soldier advocates, but could never allow that a black man could possess the freedom of a white man.

The details of these debates within the Confederacy, among its highest leadership and its lowliest soldiers, offer a unique view of how white Southerners adapted to the changing realities offered by war, and of how they adjusted their thinking–or not–about the reasons for which they fought in the first place. The success of Union armies and the obvious preference of enslaved black people for freedom within Union lines had driven many Confederates to the realization that slavery as they had known it was dead. Whether the brutal, violent, and exploitative slavery that existed in all parts of the South, or the supposedly benevolent slavery that the Lees practiced, the Confederacy went to war to maintain the “social system” in which whites maintained mastery over black people. The chief means of maintaining that mastery was the legal institution of bondage. But the war itself had unwittingly tampered with the system of slavery. Many Confederates, if they recognized this fact or not in 1865, insisted that slavery as it was, be preserved. And if it were not preserved, the Confederacy would not be worth fighting for. Those who did foresee the end of legal bondage worked hard in early 1865 to establish new conditions of race relations–whether in an independent Confederacy or a conquered South. They had been pushed unwillingly to this point and with a glimmer of hope, imagined that whatever the outcome, if they could not preserve slavery, they could at least preserve white mastery.

Bibliography
  • Gallagher, Gary. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
  • Levine, Bruce. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  • Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
Further Reading
  • Clampitt, Bradley R. The Confederate Heartland: Military and Civilian Morale in the Western Confederacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2011. Print
  • Escott, Paul D. Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Print
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. New York: Free Press, 2008. Print.
Categories: History Content