July 30, 1864: Sherman explains his views on black soldiers

Sgt. Tom Strawn

Sherman was a bit sensitive about his ideas on the subject of recruiting black soldiers. He here explains to a recruiting agent that he wants the best for blacks, but that he doesn’t think they are “the equal of white men.” And that he thinks these recruitment efforts are a distraction from the need for a universal draft.

Official Records:


HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
In the Field, near Atlanta, July 30, 1864.
JOHN A. SPOONER, Esq.,
Agent for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Nashville:

SIR: Yours from Chattanooga of July 28 is received, notifying me of your appointment by your State as lieutenant-colonel and provost-marshal for Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, under the act of Congress approved July 4, 1864, to recruit volunteers to be credited the quotas of the States, respectively. On applying to General Webster at Nashville, he will grant you a pass through our lines to these States, and as I have had considerable experience in those States would suggest recruiting depot to be established at Macon and Columbus, Miss,; Selma, Montgomery, and Mobile, Ala., and Columns, Milledgeville, and Savannah, Ga.

I do not see that the law restricts you to black recruits, but you are at liberty, I suppose, to collect white recruits also. It is waste of time and money to open rendezvous in Northwest Georgia, for I assure you I have not seen an able-bodied, men, black or white, fit for a soldier, who was not in this army or the one opposed to it.

You speak of the impression going about that I am opposed to the organization of colored regiments. My opinions are usually very positive, and there is no reason why you should not know them. Though entertaining profound reverence for our Congress, I do doubt their wisdom in the passage of this law, first, because civilian agents about an army are a nuisance; second, the duty of citizens to fight for their country is too sacred a one to be peddled off by buying up the refuse of other States; third, it unjust to the soldiers and volunteers who are fighting, as those who compose this army are doing, to place them on a par with the class of recruits you are after; fourth, the negro is in a transition state, and is not the equal of the white man; fifth, he is liberated from his bondage by act of war, and the armies in the field are entitled to all his assistance in labor and fighting in addition to the proper quota of the States; sixth, this bidding and bartering for recruits, white and black, has delayed the re-enforcement of our armies at the time when such re-enforcements would have enabled us to make our successes permanent; seven, the law is an experiment which, pending war, is unwise and unsafe, and has delayed the universal draft which I firmly believe will become necessary to overcome the widespread resistance offered us, and I also believe the universal draft will be wise and beneficent, for, under the providence of God, it will separate the from the demonstrate what citizens will fight for their country and what will only talk.

No one shall infer from this that I am not the friend of the negro as well as the white race. I contend that the treason and rebellion of the master freed the slave, and I and the armies I have commanded have conducted to safe points more negroes than those of any other general officer in the army, but I prefer some negroes as pioneers, teamsters, cooks, and servants; others gradually to experiment in the art of the soldier, beginning with the duties of local garrison, such as we had at Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Nashville, and Chattanooga. But I would not draw on the poor race for too large a proportion of its active, athletic young men, for some must remain to seek new homes and provide for the old and young, the feeble and helpless.

These are some of my peculiar notions, but I assure you they are shared by a large proportion of our fighting men.

You nay show this to the agents of the other States in the same business with yourself.
I am, &c.,
W. T. SHERMAN,
Major-General.
(Copy to Generals Thomas, Schofield, Howard, and Webster.)

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2 Responses to July 30, 1864: Sherman explains his views on black soldiers

  1. Debbie Dean says:

    When you consider the average slave’s opportunity for education of any kind, it’s easier to understand how these opinions formed.

    • Allen Gathman says:

      True, but many other officers had already been surprised by the aptitude former slaves showed in the army; Sherman was toward the more reluctant end of the spectrum.

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