Thursday, March 31, 2016
Alabama Division Education Conference - Part 5
James Rutledge Roesch of the Abbeville Institute spoke at the 1st Annual Alabama Division Education Conference at Prattville's Doster Center. Roesch spoke on "Confederate Emancipation" and he posted his speech from March 15, 2016 on the Abbeville website - http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/review/confederate-emancipation/ .
The following are excerpts but the reader is encouraged to read the speech in its entirety on the aforementioned website.
‘The best men of the South have long desired to do away with the institution and were quite willing to see it abolished.’ – Robert E. Lee
‘Most informed men realized that slavery was not an institution which would last forever; that soon it would have to be modified, and eventually, relinquished. They knew that the South could not maintain it very long after it ceased to serve a useful economic and social service, and that its utility was nearing an end. They wished, however, to choose the hour and method by which they should decree its gradual extinction. Knowing the complexity of the problem, they did not desire to be whirled into a catastrophic social revolution.’ – Pulitzer-winning historian J. Allan Nevins
The story of Patrick R. Cleburne is well-known among Southerners, but Cleburne was not the first American – nor even the first Confederate – to propose arming and freeing slaves as a means of defense against foreign invasion. In fact, it was no less a figure than George Washington during the War of American Independence. As James Madison suggested, ‘To liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks’ was ‘more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty.’ Likewise, during the War of Southern Independence, arming and freeing slaves was an idea broached from the very beginning. With the outbreak of war, slaveholders offered to organise their slaves into units while freedmen actually formed units of their own.
A reader of the New Orleans Picayune under the pseudonym ‘Corn Bread’ denied that the War was about slavery and asserted that it was about independence. ‘We are fighting for national independence, and not for slavery, and so, I think, believes Mr. Jefferson Davis,’ declared Corn Bread. ‘Let us never forget the great fact that we are fighting for independence, independence! And perish slavery if it stands in the way.’ Corn Bread was confident that there was widespread but unspoken support for arming and freeing the slaves. ‘Let every patriotic slaveholder canvass his slaves and find out who among them will volunteer for freedom and his home,’ he urged. ‘Let him prepare the negro’s mind for the position he is about to assume, and excite in him that love of country and of home which I believe strongly exists in his breast.’ John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register and Advertiser, claimed that the South was ultimately fighting for independence, not slavery. ‘We protest against the theory that this is a war for the negroes; it is a war for constitutional liberty, and the rights of self-government,’ proclaimed the Register. ‘Our revolutionary sires never endured one-tenth degree of the provocation and injustice from the British government which the South had already endured at the hands of the Yankees.’
On 2 January 1864, General Cleburne convened a meeting of the commanders of the Army of Tennessee.Cleburne painted a grim picture of subjugation: ‘the loss of all we now hold most sacred,’ ‘that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy,’ and ‘the crushing of Southern manhood.’ According to Cleburne, the Confederates were losing the War for three reasons. First, they were always outnumbered by the Federals in battle, which put them on the defensive. Second, while the Federals recruited from three large sources (Northern whites, European immigrants, and Southern slaves), the Confederates recruited from a single, small source (Southern whites). Third, slavery had estranged them from Britain and France, which sympathised with them politically and were tied to them economically. Cleburne stated, "that we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war,’ proposed Cleburne. ‘As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter – give up the negro rather than be slave himself.’ Sacrificing slavery would puncture Northern pretenses about a ‘special mission’ to wage ‘an armed and bloody crusade’ against slavery, exposing their war for what it truly was – ‘a bloody ambition for more territory, a pretended veneration for the Union…and lastly the poisonous and selfish interests which are the fungus growth of war.’ According to Cleburne, if the Confederacy abolished slavery, then the North would be forced to choose between ‘the Declaration of Independence without the disguise of philanthropy’ and ‘the gulf of despotism into which they themselves are rushing.’
The Richmond Enquirer, edited by O. Jennings Wise and the leading newspaper in the Old South published, "The war has slanderously been called the slaveholders’ war; undertaken for slavery, and maintained and supported solely for the perpetuation of negro slavery. Our enemies have charged, and much of the world believes the charge, that we have sacrificed the best and noblest of our land, heartlessly and cruelly, to maintain the negro property of some three hundred thousand slaveholders. The unparalleled suffering of this war has been slanderously misrepresented as detailed upon the poor and rich of these States by the selfish slaveholder for the security of his ‘human chattels.’ The people of these States know the infamous falsity of these charges, but that public sentiment of the world, which influences the action and opinions of men and nations, will not understand the base mendacity of these charges if the people of this country shall decide this question by its ultimate effect upon negro slavery…Whether or not slaves shall be conscripted must be decided upon some higher and nobler principle than the evils of free-negroism; the people of these States could have escaped these dangers by submitting to Mr. Lincoln."
President Jefferson Davis at first opposed Cleburne's plans but after the fall of Atlanta recognized teh urgency and endorsed a plan. In the end, the prestigious General Robert E. Lee’s public endorsement of the Cleburne-Davis proposal proved decisive. ‘In this enlightened age,’ Lee confessed to his wife before the War, ‘there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.’ Lee and his wife prayed together for ‘the mild and melting influence of Christianity’ to bring ‘the final abolition of human slavery.’ Lee was against slavery and secession, but he refused to fight for a Union founded on force of arms rather than consent of the governed. ‘I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union,’ Lee confessed to his son. ‘Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.’ During the debate over the Cleburne-Davis proposal, Lee had deliberately stayed silent, hoping to avoid the specter of military interference in civil affairs. Despite his official silence, Lee shared his support for the idea in his personal correspondence. ‘We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which must be produced upon our social institutions,’ Lee explained to a Confederate Senator from Virginia. ‘My opinion is that we should employ them without delay.’ According to Lee, any emancipation of enlisted slaves would have to be followed up with ‘a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.’
Once General Lee’s views became public knowledge, most of the opposition was either converted or simply silenced. The General Assembly of Virginia took the first step, passing a law paving the way for Confederate legislation. Congressman Barksdale’s bill authorised the President to request and accept the enlistment of up to 300,000 slaves as soldiers. Because the Confederate government had no constitutional authority over slavery – the States had reserved the right to preserve or abolish it for themselves – the law did not authorise the government to emancipate enlisted slaves, leaving that decision to their masters and State laws. Accordingly, President Davis instructed the War Department only to accept slaves with conferrals of freedom from their masters. ‘No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his consent and the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman’ ordered Davis. Furthermore, Davis ordered that the recruiters and commanders of slave soldiers were obligated ‘to a provident, considerate, and humane attention to whatever concerns the health, comfort, instruction, and discipline of those troops, and to the uniform observance of kindness, forbearance, and indulgence in their treatment of them, and especially that they will protect them from injustice and oppression.’ The law, as enforced by Davis, provided not just for the enlistment of slaves, but their emancipation and equality as well.
The notion of slaves fighting with and for their masters may seem peculiar to the modern mind, which is infected with shame, sanctimony, and other emotions that prevent a rational understanding of slavery. It made perfect sense to many Southerners, however. The South, after all, was still the slaves’ home, where all the people – white and black – and places that they loved were located. Scholars such as Ulrich B. Phillips and Eugene D. Genovese acknowledge that although slavery was an exploitative and abusive system in principle and practice, there was also genuine love and loyalty between masters and slaves. ‘Slavery, especially in its plantation setting and in its paternalistic aspect, made white and black Southerners one people while making them two,’ concludes Genovese. ‘As in a lasting although not necessarily happy marriage, two discrete individuals shared, for better or worse, one life.’ For all its evils, slavery in the Old South was simply not the nightmarish circle of hell as depicted in the artwork of Kara Walker or the upcoming Nat Turner biopic, ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ In Ulrich’s famous phrase, ‘All in all, the slave regime was a curious blend of force and concession, of arbitrary disposal by the master and self-direction by the slave, of tyranny and benevolence, of antipathy and affection.’
Ultimately, of course, Confederate emancipation was a failure, as modern-day critics like Levine love to crow. Instead of solving the problem of slavery themselves, as Southerners had always struggled to do in and out of the Union, slavery was abolished in the worst way possible: as an unintended consequence of a deadly, devastating conquest by outsiders with no interest in the welfare of black or white Southerners. Virginian slaveholder Thomas Jefferson’s fear, that emancipation would be a ‘bloody process…excited and conducted’ by an enemy in wartime, rather than a change ‘brought on by the generous energy of our own minds,’ had come true. The significance of Confederate emancipation is not in its effect, however, but in its intent. As Abbeville Institute Chair Donald Livingston concludes, ‘This failure does not take away from what we learn about the character of the Southern people: that they had the moral and political resources to effect emancipation when the right political circumstances presented themselves.’ Surely, the fact that Southerners were willing to make the sacrifice at all—no other people in history living among slaves had ever considered freeing them, much less arming them!—and not the trite observation of ‘too little, too late,’ is the moral of this heroic story.