December 9, 1864: Is it time to arm the slaves?

22nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops

The editor of the Richmond Daily Dispatch wonders out loud if saving the Confederacy is worth arming and freeing slaves. Despite all the bravado previously displayed, he’s clearly aware that the North is winning the war. Hundreds of thousands of former slaves fight for the Union; why shouldn’t the South make use of the millions of potential black soldiers still in their hands? Of course, the editor doesn’t quite come to the point of definitely advocating this policy, but couches the essay as a question — are we at this point? As he says, the policy could only be adopted in dire necessity.

As recently as 2010 a Virginia history textbook claimed that thousands of slaves fought for the South, and many “Confederate heritage” websites continue to tout this dubious idea. Not that it really should require refutation at this point, but this editorial shows that the very idea of arming slaves in the South was still only a controversial suggestion as late as the end of 1864.

Fitting negroes into the field.

Has the time arrived when this issue is fairly before us? Is it, indeed, liberty and independence, or subjugation, which is presented to us? A man must be blind to current events; to the gigantic proportions of this war; to the proclamations of the enemy; who does not see that the issue above referred to is presented now. And, I repeat, the only question is, has the time arrived?

Are we able, beyond a question, to wage successful war against power three times our own in numbers, with all Europe from which to recruit, and who unhesitatingly put arms in the hands of our own negroes for our destruction? I will not say that, under the Providence of God, we may not be able to triumph; but I do say that we should not, from any mawkish sensibility, refuse any means within our reach which will tend to enable us to work out our deliverance for my part, standing before God and my country.

I do not hesitate to say that I would arm such portion of our able-bodied slave population as may be necessary and put them in the field, so as to have them ready for the spring campaign, even if it resulted in the freedom of those thus organized. Will I not employ them to fight the negro force of the enemy; aye, the Yankees themselves, who already boast that they have two hundred thousand of our slaves in arms against us? Can we hesitate — can we doubt — when the question is, whether our enemy shall use our slaves against us, or we use them against him — when the question may be between liberty and independence on the one hand, or our subjugation and utter ruin on the other?

I am aware that a clamor has been raised against the policy of putting the negroes into the army by good and loyal men, because, they say, “The end is not yet”–that our army of citizen soldiers is still competent to make good our defence. No one would advocate the policy of thus appropriating our slaves except as a matter of urgent necessity; but, as public opinion is widely divided on this subject, does not common prudence require us to fear that those opposed to this extremes measure may be mistaken?–Suppose it should so turn out, how deep would be their responsibility to the country, to freedom and independence everywhere! I know it is the opinion of some of the highest military authorities that the time has come when we should call our slaves to our assistance; and I hold it to be clearly the duty of every citizen, however much he may doubt the wisdom and necessity of the policy, to co- operate in strengthening, by every means, our armies.

I repeat, I know this policy is looked to with anxiety by some of the ablest military men of the age, who believe that it is of the last importance that it should be adopted without delay. I therefore earnestly recommend to the Legislature that they should give this subject early consideration and enact such measures as their wisdom may approve.

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