Confederate Congress: Second Congress, Second
Session, Senate, March 7, 1865: The Negro Soldier Question. Southern
Historical Society Papers 52 (1959), pp.
THE NEGRO SOLDIER QUESTION
At 12 o'clock House bill to increase the military forces of the Confederate States, better
known as the negro soldier bill, was taken up and read. The following is the bill; A Bill
to increase the military forces of the Confederate States.
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That in order to provide
additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the
Confederate States, secure their independence and preserve their institutions, the President be
and he is hereby authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves the services
of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war,
to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.
Section 2. That the General-in-Chief be authorized to organize the said slaves into
companies, battalions, regiments and brigades, under such rules and regulations as the
Secretary of War may prescribe, and to be commanded by such officers as the President may
Section 3. That while employed in the service the said troops shall receive the same
rations, clothing and compensation as are allowed to other troops in the same branch of
Section 4. That if, under the previous sections of this act, the President shall not be
able to raise a sufficient number of troops to prosecute the war successfully, and
maintain the sovereignty of the States and the independence of the Confederate States,
then he is hereby authorize to call on each State, whenever he thinks it expedient for her
quota of three hundred thousand troops, in addition to those subject to military service
under existing laws, or so many thereof as the President may deem necessary, to be raised
from such classes of the population, irrespective of colour, in each State, as the proper
Section 5. That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the
relation of the said slaves. Mr. Hunter said that as he had instructed by the Virginia
Legislature to vote against his conviction, it was proper that he should give
expression to his opinions. Since his first appearance in publick life he had recognized
the right of the Legislature to instruct; and upon that body he desired to place the
responsibility of the measure should it become a law. Until this morning he had abandoned
the idea of publickly expressing his views; but his friends had suggested that justice to
himself required that he should do so. He would necessarily have to go over much the same
ground as when a kindred measure was recently under discussion in secret session.
When we left the old Government he had thought we had gotten ride forever of the slavery
agitation; that we were entering into a new Confederacy of homogeneous States upon the
agitation of the slavery question, which had become intolerable under the old Union, was
to have no place. But to his surprise he finds that this Government assumes the power to
arm the slaves, which involves also the power of emancipation.-To the agitation of this
question, the assumption of this power, he dated the origin of the gloom which now
overspreads our people. They knew that if our liberties were to be achieved it was to be
done by the hearts and to hands of free men. It also injured us abroad. It was regarded as
a confession of despair and an abandonment of the ground upon which we had seceded from
the old Union. We had insisted that Congress had no right to interfere with slavery, and
upon the coming into power of the party who it was known would assume and exercise that
power, we seceded.
We had also then contended that whenever the two races were thrown together one must be
master and the other slave, and we vindicated ourselves against the accusations of the
abolitionists by asserting that slavery was the best and happiest condition of the negro.
Now what does this proposition admit? The right of the central Government to put the
slaves into the militia, and to emancipate at least so many as shall be placed in the
military service. It is a clear claim of the central Government to emancipate the slaves.
If we are right in passing this measure we were wrong in denying to the old government the
right to interfere with the institution of slavery and to emancipate slaves. Besides, if
we offer slaves their freedom as a boon we confess that we were insincere, were
hypocritical, in asserting that slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves. He
had been sincere in declaring that the central Government had no power over the
institution of slavery, and that freedom would be no boon to the negro.
He now believed, as he had formerly said in discussion on the same subject, that arming
and emancipating the slaves was an abandonment of this contest-an abandonment of the
grounds upon which it had been undertaken. If this is so who it is answer for the hundreds
of thousands of men who had been slain in the war? Who was to answer from them before the bar of Heaven? Not those who had entered into the
contest upon principle and adhered to the principle, but those who had abandoned the
principle. Not for all the gold in California would he have put his name to such a measure
as this unless obliged to do it by instructions. As long as he was free to vote from his
own convictions nothing could have extorted it from him.
Mr. Hunter then argued the necessity of freeing the negroes if they were made soldiers.
There was something in the human heart and head that tells us it must be so; when they
come out scarred from this conflict they must be free. If we could make them soldiers, the
condition of the soldier being socially equal to any other in society, we could make them
officers, perhaps, to command white men. Some future ambitious President might use the
slaves to seize the liberties of the country and put the white men under his fee.-The
Government had not power under the Constitution to arm and emancipate the slaves, and the
Constitution granted no such great powers by implication.
Mr. Hunter then showed from statisticks that no considerable body of negro troops could be
raised in the States over which the Government had control, without stripping the country
of the labour absolutely necessary to produce food. He thought there was a much better
change of getting the large number of deserters back to the army than of getting slaves
into it. The negro abhored the profession of a soldiers. The commandant of conscripts,
with authority to impress twenty thousand slaves had, between last September and the
present time, been able to get but four thousand; and of these thirty-five hundred had
been obtained in Virginia and North Carolina, and five hundred from Alabama. If he, armed
with all the powers of impressment, could not get them as labourers, how will we be able
to get them as soldiers? Unless they volunteer they will go to the Yankee; if we depend
upon their volunteering we can't get them, and those we do get will desert to the enemy,
who can offer them a better price than we can. The enemy can offer them liberty, clothing,
and even farms at our expense. Negroes now were deterred from going to the enemy only by the fear of being put into the army. If we put
them in they all go over.
In conclusion, he considered that the measure, when reviewed as to its expediency, was
worse than as a question of principle. He was not satisfied that the majority of the army
were in favour of the measure. The army had been told that the measure was necessary, and
they had acquiesced. He did not believe that the heroes of Manassas, Fredericksburg and
Cold Harbour were holding out their hands to the negroes to come and save them. He did not
believe that our troops would fight with that constancy which should inspire troops in the
hour of battle, when they knew that their flanks were being held by negroes. He repeated
that he would have voted against the bill except fort the instructions which put an
obligation upon him. He should endeavour to mould the bill so as to carry our the true
spirit of those instructions. He believed it would pass, and hoped that it might not have
the evil effects that he apprehended.
Mr. Graham also opposed the bill. He meant to hold out no threat, but he would say that
when Congress adopted such a measure the States would feel called upon the consider
whether such an inroad upon the Constitution did not call for additional guards being
thrown around that instrument. He considered the adoption of the measure as almost a
virtual abandonment of the principles of the contest.
Mr. Graham protested against the right of the Virginia Legislature to instruct its
Senators after the mature deliberation of the Senate had disposed of the measure, which
affected not the State of Virginia alone, but every State between the Potomac and the Rio
Grande. Mr. Graham argued at length against the constitutionally and expediency of the
Mr. Semmes spoke in advocacy of the bill. He advocated it as a necessity. It was better to
throw over part of the cargo than to lose the ship and cargo together. It was urged by
General Lee, and the consequences which would follow would not be so bad as had been
represented. He hoped the bill would be so modified as to conform to the instructions
given by the State of Virginia to her Senators.
Mr. Orr opposed the bill.
Mr. Burnett urged its passage.
The Senate resolved into secret session.
After recess the Senate met at half-past seven o'clock, P. M., and resumed consideration
of the negro soldier bill.
Mr. Oldham spoke in advocacy of the policy of arming the slaves.
After further debate the Senate adjourned, without taking a vote on the bill.