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Robert E. Lee on Black Troops and the Confederacy - February 1998 Civil War Times Feature

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1998 
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Robert E. Lee on Black Troops and the                                                    Confederacy
Robert E. Lee on Black Troops and the Confederacy

In the waning days of the Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee disclosed his thoughts on the subject of Negroes as soldiers for the Confederacy.

In the waning days of the Civil War, when desperation drove the Confederacy to enlist Negroes in her army, General Robert E. Lee disclosed his thoughts on the subject of Negroes as soldiers in two remarkable letters to Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell. The letters were written by Charles Marshall, Lee's assistant adjutant general, but the thoughts expressed are clearly Lee's. In addition, these letters provide rare insights into the unexpected difficulties encountered by the Confederacy in wresting slaves from their owners to preserve a last, slim hope of a Southern Confederacy.

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The original letters are located in the Richards S. Ewell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Hd Qs CS Armies
27th March 1865
Lt Gen RS Ewell
Commdg General,

General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 25th inst: and to say that he much regrets the unwillingness of owners to permit their slaves to enter the service. If the state authorities can do nothing to get those negroes who are willing to join the army, but whose masters refuse their consent, there is no authority to do it at all. What benefit they expect their negroes to be to them, if the enemy occupies the country, it is impossible to say. He hopes you will endeavor to get the assistance of citizens who favor the measure, and bring every influence you can to bear. When a negro is willing, and his master objects, there would be less objection to compulsion, if the state has the authority. It is however of primary importance that the negroes should know that the service is voluntary on their part. As to the name of the troops, the general thinks you cannot do better than consult the men themselves. His only objection to calling them colored troops was that the enemy had selected that designation for theirs. But this has no weight against the choice of the troops and he recommends that they be called colored or if they prefer, they can be called simply Confederate troops or volunteers. Everything should be done to impress them with the responsibility and character of their position, and while of course due respect and subordination should be exacted, they should be so treated as to feel that their obligations are those of any other soldier and their rights and privileges dependent in law & order as obligations upon others as upon theirselves. Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden and they should be made to forget as soon as possible that they were regarded as menials. You will readily understand however how to conciliate their good will & elevate the tone and character of the men….

Very respy.
Your obt. servt.
Chaarles Marshall
Lt. Col & AAG

Hd. Qts. CS Armies
30th March 1865
Lt Gen RS Ewell
Commdg General,

General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 29th inst: and to say that he regrets very much to learn that owners refuse to allow their slaves to enlist. He deems it of great moment that some of this force should be put in the field as soon as possible, believing that they will remove all doubts as to the expediency of the measure. He regrets it the more in the case of the owners about Richmond, inasmuch as the example would be extremely valuable, and the present posture of military affairs renders it almost certain that if we do not get these men, they will soon be in arms against us, and perhaps relieving white Federal soldiers from guard duty in Richmond. He desires you to press this view upon the owners.

He says that he regards it as very important that immediate steps be taken to put the recruiting in operation, and has so advised the department. He desires to have you placed in general charge of it, if agreeable to you, as he thinks nothing can be accomplished without energetic and intelligent effort by someone who fully appreciates the vital importance of the duty….

Very respy
Your obt servt
Charles Marshall
Lt col & AAG


10 Responses to “Robert E. Lee on Black Troops and the Confederacy - February 1998 Civil War Times Feature”


  1. 1

    [...] freedom for themselves and their families.  His thoughts on black troops are set forth in these letters.  I have little doubt that if it had been in his power Lee would have used black troops from the [...]

  2. 2
    Laniya Graham says:

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  3. 3
    Tony says:

    This reinforces the idea that whites in the south knew that blacks were not savages and had intelligence, but thier greed compromised thier moral conscience.

    • 3.1
      Paul says:

      It was not "…whites in the south…" but the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that legally defined Blacks as property and that they could never become citizens of the United States because they were of an "inferior race." Slavery was, therefore, not considered to be a matter of morality but of legality. Looking at our modern agenda I think it may honestly be said that we have not learned the lessons of history.

      • 3.1.1
        KeithS says:

        It is most interesting that the conservatives of the time were most interested in the Dred Scott decision not being a split one because a split where the Southern Justicess and the Northern Justices were on opposite sides of the issue would not have the same strength of law. It was a given that the Southern Justices would render the decision that they did but would the Nothern Justices go along? In the end Buchannan met with a Pennsylvania Justice and strong armed his concurring opinion with the Southern Justices. So in the end they got the legal opinion they wanted.

  4. 4
    LEG says:

    If a slave gains respectability as a soldier, granting him land and freedom will make him a threat to the owners as both a loss of labor and a competed economic threshold for pricing on crops. King Cotton as a commodity system functioned only at fixed subsidy thresholds (what one might consider mercantile socialism) for everything, it was very vulnerable to sudden shifts in any of a number of necessary enablers.

    OTOH, if a slave fights for the Confederacy and the Confederacy loses, any recompense which is given by the Union must still come through the system of private ownership of the land and commercial privilege which was perceived to be a white dominated arena.

    Slave owners refused to allow valuable slaves to fight in a white cause under the mistaken belief that by denying legal precedent for service in a failing national entity and appeasing the enemy by engineering of Union victory, they would be protected as economically necessary members of the national economy.

    Instead, Reconstructionism ruined them enmasse and what the North didn't take through illegal acts of Congress, the British did: chockablock replacing U.S. cotton with Egyptian equivalents as the dominant force in the cotton industry for the next 70+ years.

    Still gathered by what amounts to slaves too.

    The Civil War was a tragedy because the rise of mechanization and the depletion of Southern Soil would have made the end of the independent Cotton Barons lifestyle a given anyway. Whether slaves were repatriated home or became the founding members of a new form of indentured servitude in the Northern Industrial Revolution wouldn't matter as much as the lasting harm to our social cohesion caused by the various civil rights rent seeking abuses of the last half century.

    • 4.1
      Andrew Douglass says:

      You had me at least interested until "whether slaves were repatriated home or…" Home? Repatriated? Really? The so-called importation of slaves ended by federal law in 1808–a fate written into the Constitution itself. Their home was here or, to truly acknowledge their humanity, wherever else they chose to go. They were not a commodity like cotton.

      And regardless of concerns about "legal precedent" the slaveholders principally did not want to give guns to people they had given ample reason to use against them. Fear of consequences also drove plans for repatriation. President Lincoln apparently fully grasped the moral dimensions of the problem, as opposed to white narcissism, in the Emancipation Proclamation and Second Inaugural Address. Although racism certainly persisted in the North and South after the war, and the motives for the war were complex, to say it was about the economy of cotton and not the pernicious immoral institution that in stages from the creation of the Union through the Missouri Compromise, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott etc. caused it is ahistorical.

      • 4.1.1
        LEG says:

        AD,

        >>
        You had me at least interested until "whether slaves were repatriated home or…" Home? Repatriated? Really? The so-called importation of slaves ended by federal law in 1808–a fate written into the Constitution itself.
        >>

        You are aware of the dates of the Civil War?

        >>
        Their home was here or, to truly acknowledge their humanity, wherever else they chose to go. They were not a commodity like cotton.
        >>

        Northern Whites did not fight for black men but against the notion of slavery as a ethics concept in it's own right. They hated (and had laws denying rights to) -blacks as real people- as deeply racist as the South's Jim Crow ever would be. Because they too wanted to keep what was their's, even if only in potential, for themselves.

        And given Lincoln's own comments about them and the fact that they have since come to be, among other things, the 5% of our population responsible for 36% of it's prison inmates with a property crime rate 8X that of whites and violent crime rate 7X that of whites (including some 35,000 rapes in 2005 and 52% of the nation's murders in 2008) there is a reason to treat them, not as a commodity but as a group behavioral pathology.

        Bluntly, you should stop putting words in my mouth.

        Blacks in 1865 were overjoyed to be free. But also frightened of what came next with no status or training or welcome to anything but what they already knew. And had seen destroyed. They retained sufficient subsistance skills to survive in Liberia or Haiti (though they didn't do well in either place and were rejected by all of Central America) and as defacto prisoners could have been repatriated without comment. Just a Germans were repatriated to -their- homeland 'without comment' after ALL the Allies made use of some 7 million of them as menial slaves all the way up to 1956.

        Do not confuse your personal beliefs with the reality that the population of the U.S., as a whole and with good reason wanted nothing to do with blacks for that is what made 'emancipation' a lie.
        If you do not breed with a given population group, the melting pot effect doesn't work and each slice of the pie becomes fixed and smaller which is anathema to a society like ours.

        >>
        And regardless of concerns about "legal precedent" the slaveholders principally did not want to give guns to people they had given ample reason to use against them.
        >>

        No. Germany had upwards of 2 million household servants still employed as such as late as mid 1944. They didn't release them -or women- to industrial positions because they had an alternate supply of forced labor for the one and could not afford the societal as moral collapse of their culture with the other. In light of what has happened since 1960, this custom of preserving social roles as social access seems a very good idea because it ensures things like stable TFRs.

        In the case of blacks remaining on farms and plantations during the war, the risk remained high with the men away to war but the need to -keep eating- and creating some economic turnover demanded it.

        When given such power in the immediate post bellum South however; blacks ran wild with it and -did- create major social upheaval and it was not until the North left the remnants of Reconstruction to rot on the vine (having destroyed the internally self sufficient agricultural system which was always the intent to avoid a rival power base) that they enacted a system to contain black access to what was seen as residual white entitlements.

        Had they armed the blacks, and given them substantive reason to believe that they would be accorded full rights of citizenship, things would have been far worse as the North was only interested in establishing the dominance of a centrist power structure and economic controls. BOTH sides wanted to keep blacks in their primitive, disenfranchised, place.

        The efforts of a few crazed evangelicals aside, there was never a concerted vision of blacks being anything near coequal.

        And if that is the case then repatriation is still a better solution than social denial in place through 100 years of citizenship that wasn't. For them as for us.

        >>
        Fear of consequences also drove plans for repatriation. President Lincoln apparently fully grasped the moral dimensions of the problem, as opposed to white narcissism, in the Emancipation Proclamation and Second Inaugural Address. Although racism certainly persisted in the North and South after the war, and the motives for the war were complex, to say it was about the economy of cotton and not the pernicious immoral institution that in stages from the creation of the Union through the Missouri Compromise, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott etc. caused it is ahistorical.
        >>

        Every true society as opposed to temporary confederation of microstates (and many of those too) has grown on the backs of slavery. This is one of the hidden precepts of what we call the 'necessary underclass' of ditch diggers. That one thing is free labor whose work product is so devalued that it becomes thermodynamically possible to 'pump from below' the values accruing to all societal elements above. And particularly to build an intelligencia of privileged and forward thinking elites.

        People who fail to acknowledge what this means are those who fail to see what Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Israel, Rome and China all had ages ago. And which persisted through the Victorian era, _even among our own race_ as servant classes.

        What makes your argument laughable is the fact that you act as though, because it also happened to blacks, it must be truly terrible because…gasp, they're not like us.

        Which is subconsciously racist even as it is historically absurd. We did not begin the enslavement of blacks. Arabs and other Blacks did. Not more than 3% of our population in fact owned slaves and yet the South had a viable economy that was purely driven by the SINGLE economic vector in which they were chiefly participant.

        Does this mean it was wrong to enslave them? I would say that it was wrong to introduce a sub species family (for such is what race comes down to) of humanity to our society based on the utter havoc that their presence has caused our society. I would say that fighting a war that cost us a half million dead and -then- released this high criminality, low intelligence, contagion has been ruinous. Because our evolutionary curves are not the same. Do not fulfill the same environmental purpose which created the specific genetic optimizations.

        But beyond this, the _tragedy_, not the cause (centrist bankers illicit, endless, greed in building towards the precursor to The Fed) was that slavery was doomed, either way. And would have ended without the rude division of the country. Within 20-30 years.

        Is eliminating thirty years of degrading one population group 'worth' the wholesale destruction of 618,000 people and the crippling injury (removing them from the work force and aggravating the natural slowing of the economic expansion, westwards in the deprivation of another primitive culture's extant rights) to another 400,000 more?

      • 4.1.2
        Andrew Douglass says:

        @LEG: As is usually true in history, a group of people might do the same thing for a variety of motives. Likewise, individuals within a group have many different characters. Southerners were not (generally) devils, nor Northeners saints. Stereotypes are not very useful. I'm not aware of putting words in your mouth, but I'm sure you're fully aware of what you're revealing.

        Your argument has enough factual errors that your logical fallacies don't really matter. There are small ones (5%) and regurgitated lies ("blacks ran wild"?). And it's arrogant to say that blacks (as if "they" were some group separate from "human"), regardless of the meaning of the war, "only" had to wait another 20-30 years for slavery to end. As it turned out, the South ironically rather stupidly forced the issue early.

        There are some good histories on Lincoln, the general consensus being that whatever he felt about blacks early on, his views evolved while in office. Read the Second Inaugural address for a truly profound and moving discussion.

  5. 5

    [...] freedom for themselves and their families.  His thoughts on black troops are set forth in these letters.  I have little doubt that if it had been in his power Lee would have used black troops from the [...]



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