On this day in 1865, with the main Rebel armies facing long odds against much larger Union armies, in an act of desperation, the Confederacy reluctantly approves the use of black troops. The situation was quite bleak for the Confederates in the spring of 1865. Although they had no way of knowing it, their beloved Confederacy had just less than a month to live. The hated Yankees had captured large swaths of Southern territory and General William T. Sherman’s Union army was tearing unimpeded throughthe Carolinas. At the same time,
Confederate General Robert E. Lee was struggling futilely to defend and protect the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and he was
trying to do this with a steadily shrinking army, the victim of both severe malnutrition and desertions. His Union opponent, General Ulysses S. Grant, was applying a relentless pressure with an army that was better fed, better supplied, and with unlimited resources. Lee and
army in the Carolinas and use the combined force to take on Sherman and Grant one at a time, but this would leave Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, both unprotected and vulnerable to capture. The other option was to arm the slaves, the last source of fresh manpower in the Confederacy. This choice rendered the whole reason for the war as pointless. It was a no-win situation for the leaders of the Confederacy.
The idea of enlisting blacks had been debated for some time. Arming slaves was essentially a way of setting them free, since they could not realistically be sent back to plantations after they had fought. General Patrick Cleburne had suggested enlisting slaves a year before, but very few in the Confederate
leadership considered the proposal, since slavery was the foundation of Southern society. One politic-ian asked, “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” Another suggested, “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Lee weighed in on this thorny issue and he asked the Confederate government for help. “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.” Lee asked that the slaves be freed as a condition of fighting, but the bill that passed the Confederate Congress on March 13, 1865, did not stipulate freedom for those who served.
The measure did nothing to stop the destruction of the Confederacy. Several thousand blacks were enlisted in the Rebel cause, but they could not begin to balance out the nearly 200,000 blacks who fought for the Union. It was a case of “too little, too late”.
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