February 10, 1864: Are black soldiers “deserters” from the south?

22nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops

Exchange of prisoners broke down in 1863 because Lincoln insisted that black and white Union soldiers be treated the same. The New York Times says that the Confederates are trying to get the Union to concede a distinction between free black Northern soldiers and escaped former slaves in the Union army.

Are Negro Soldiers Southern “Deserters?”

It seems from the debates in the rebel Congress on the proposed amendment to the Act of last session condemning our captured negro soldiers to Slavery, that the Confederates hope, by creating a distinction between free negroes enlisted at the North and negro slaves enlisted at the South, and then persisting stoutly, to force us into an arrangement for a general exchange on their own terms. They are evidently under the impression that we can be induced to enter into a compromise by which, on having the Northern negroes duly exchanged, the Southern negroes shall be left to their fate — that is, remanded to Slavery. And this expectation is, doubtless, strengthened by the speeches of Democratic politicians, and the articles of Democratic newspapers at the North. These latter are even more anxious to get us to abandon the negroes than to secure the release of the white prisoners, as the release of the whites would be simply a gain for humanity, while the abandonment of the blacks would be a precedent that would upset the whole policy of negro enlistment.

In support of this they use two arguments, one of which — the worthlessness of negroes as compared to white men — is hardly worth discussing; but the other — that the Confederacy has, by the laws of war, a right to detain and punish its slaves taken in arms against it — on which the Copperhead organs have always relied — is entitled to more attention. On this theory, the South having been recognized as a belligerent by the United States, as well as by foreign nations, we are bound to concede to it the same authority over its deserters, mutineers, or traitors, as any other Power with which we might be at war. By the laws of war, deserters may, if captured in arms against the Power to which their allegiance is due, be dealt with in any manner that their captors may see fit; negro slaves flying into our lines and enlisting in our service stand, we are told, in the position of deserters. They owe to their masters allegiance of a much stronger kind than a soldier ever owes to his Government, in as much as their masters own them. The Constitution recognizes this allegiance as binding; and as we acknowledge their masters to be a belligerent Power, the slaves are, if caught in our service, liable to any punishment, from hanging to “paddling,” that the Confederate authorities may see fit to inflict upon them, and we have no right even to remonstrate in their behalf.

The nature of belligerent rights has been so much discussed on both sides of the water, since this war began, that it seems almost absurd to say anything further on the subject. But these doubts about the status of the negro troops, and the continued anxiety of a large number of people at the North to find plausible excuse for still further degrading themselves in the Southern cause, prove that the matter still needs overhauling. The point which has just now to be kept in view is that the concession of belligerent rights to an unrecognized Government is not a matter of right but of policy. They are accorded either for the sake of humanity or of convenience, and if neither of these things is subserved by granting them, they are not granted. It is not enough for a Government to exist, to own an army and to be capable of fighting battles in order to claim them. They were not accorded to Hungary by the European Powers; nor to the Sepoys by the English; nor are they now accorded to the Poles, either by Russia or by the Powers most friendly to them. And yet in every one of these cases the insurgents were in possession, and in the case of Poland are still in possession of a formidable military force, and all the machinery of a regular Government. The reason has been simply that nobody’s convenience called for the concession, nor would humanity have been benefited by its coming from anybody but Russia.

France and England have accorded them to the South ostensibly to avoid the necessity for treating the Confederate cruisers on the high seas as pirates, or in other words, as a matter of convenience for themselves. They give no other reason, and no other reason is necessary. Nevertheless, in the eyes of these Powers, as well as in our eyes, the Confederates are rebels against the United States Government, and liable to the penalties of treason. If France and England did not think so, it Would be their duty to recognize the Confederacy at once. If we did not think so, the war would be the most unjustifiable and criminal enterprise in which any community has ever embarked.

Why then did the United States accord them the rights of belligerents? Simply because the enforcement, in the field and on the sea, of that view of the status of the rebels, which alone justifies hostilities against them, would have been both inconvenient and cruel. We should have been compelled to hang all their captured seamen as pirates, and all their captured soldiers as traitors; but they would have retaliated, and we should then have treated the world to a spectacle of continuous butchery which would have shocked Christendom and have degraded us, without | having advanced our cause one jot. But if we had hanged every prisoner that fell into our hands, we should been strictly in our right by the laws of war. European Powers would have conceded it to us, while protesting against it in the name of humanity. Unless the Southern rebels are traitors, we have no excuse for righting them; and if they are traitors, there is nothing in the books to prevent our executing them. We might legally treat them as Russia is treating the Poles, or as the British treated the Sepoys, and no Power in the world would have the right to say one word in their behalf, except by way of intercession.

We have therefore accorded them belligerent rights, for the sake of humanity — in the interest of life and liberty — the only considerations which hare, we venture to say, ever influenced our Government in according them to the insurgents; because their concession on any other ground would convert the war into one of barbarous and causeless conquest.

What the advocates of the theory which treats our negro troops as plantation “deserters” now want us to do, however, is to allow this concession, this waver of strict right which we have made in the interest of humanity, to be perverted to the uses of inhumanity, to be made a cloak for the grossest perfidy on our part, and of the grossest barbarity on the part of the South. At this point, we sincerely trust, however, our Government will stop short, and say — for the furtherance of whatever saves suffering and mitigates the horrors of war, we acknowledge you to be belligerents, but, whenever you seek to use this acknowledgment, to multiply its atrocities, by selling men who have once been in our uniform into slavery, we fall back on our rights, and you are rebels still. We grant you everything that will make war less barbarous and revolting — nothing that will make it more so; everything that is consistent with our position as an honorable and Christian people — nothing that is inconsistent with it. As long as we refrain from acting on our theory of your status, you must refrain from acting on your theory of the status of the negroes. On any other basis than this, all negotiation as to the exchange of prisoners would be either disgraceful to us or a great mockery.

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