March 31, 1865: A letter about arming the slaves

black soldier gordon
Images of a black Union soldier suggest a problem with this scheme.


The New York Times publishes a captured letter a Tennessean in 1863, advocating the arming of slaves. The writer, who is left anonymous, feels that it’s not paradoxical to give up slavery, because “Dahomey is still left” — perhaps suggesting that planters could replace freed slaves with new ones from Africa? Furthermore, he doesn’t think that slavery is what he’s fighting for, though he doesn’t mention specific “more exalted motives”. And anyway “the happiness of the negro is much more involved in the question than that of the white man” — presumably a reference to the widely held view at the time that black people were better off as slaves. Unfortunately, the big planters are unwilling to give up their valuable slave property, he admits.

Our correspondent who accompanied SHERIDAN upon his last expedition, has sent us a number of private letters which fell into his hands. We select the following:

ATHENS, Tenn., Aug. 11, 1863.

MY DEAR –: You ought to know that our best men, in this section of the Confederacy, are seriously discussing the propriety of calling out our negroes, drilling, arming, and mustering them into the service as soldiers. The plan has many advocates. I have yet to meet with the first man in Tennessee who is willing to pronounce emphatically and positively against the feasibility and necessity of the scheme. I believe the plan meets the approbation of a majority of our folks, and as it will certainly soon form the subject of newspaper controversy, if not Congressional action. I wish you to think over the question maturely and give us, editorially, the benefit of your views.

With the single exception of Virginia. Tennessee has contributed more men and means to, and suffered more in, the cause of Southern independence, than any other State in the Confederacy. We are almost exhausted. The whole remaining portion of our people able to bear arms, irrespective of age, will soon be in the field, except that very small body of Union men who are still left in this end of the State. The men who have voluntarily given up their brothers, sons, nephews, and other kindred, to the cause of independence, are now willing to go into the field themselves and take their negroes with them. What think you of that kind of patriotism.

I heard a large slaveholder say to-day that he would muster and arm his men, and take them to battle, promising them in advance, in case we maintain our independence, a free choice either to go to Central America or some other country of their own election, as freemen, or to return to bondage under him. He says he has given everything else to the cause. He is now willing to surrender slavery. This may seem paradoxical to many who regard this as a war for slavery; but, upon reflection, I don’t think it is even in that view of the case. For the principle we are fighting for being once established, Dahomey is still left, and a highway is open to it. And as to my own private views, I have never been willing to acknowledge I was fighting for slavery. There are other and much more exalted motives that should prompt us. As to the matter of slavery. I think the happiness of the negro is much more involved in the question than that of the white man.

If the project of calling out the negroes should be broached in the next Congress, it will meet with bitter opposition. Whence, think you? From the Cotton States. Why? Because the large planters of the South are not willing to surrender their hundreds of valuable slaves to the cause of the country. That is too severe a task upon their patriotism. But enough, for the present. Tell BAGBY to open on the question (adversely, of course) in the Hermit letters. I want to hear him. For myself, I rather favor the scheme.

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